For the last several years there has been a significant rift between sectors seeking to mold the way Intellectual Property is protected in the United States. Traditionalists from the Pharmaceutical and Publishing industries have pushed hard to maintain the status quo, while forward thinking tech firms have sought to revamp the system after facing an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits by patent trolls seeking to misuse the patent system for profiteering rather than idea protection.
At the heart of the debate is the notion of whether or not an idea itself should be enough to earn a patent, or must the idea actually be put to use in a meaningful way before it becomes worthy of governmentally enforced legal protection.
Decades ago a product would come to market and earn a patent after years of R&D with significant expense necessary to make it viable. In the modern tech world, companies like Intellectual Ventures have made a patenting raw ideas the core element of their business plan. Rather than spending time, money or other resources on developing ideas for the marketplace – they simply patent the idea itself, put it on the shelf, and then use the court system to sue anyone who does anything that infringes on their patent in the future.
The result is a system that actually hampers innovation rather than fostering it according to many patent-reform advocates. Whereas a patent used to be used to safeguard a new innovation from being stolen or co-opted by copycats, the maze of patents that exist on virtually every vague aspect of modern tech now make it unfeasible for a start-up to launch new services or products without an expensive army of lawyers carving out breathing room from a mountain of “paper patents” that cover ideas which are not seen anywhere but on the documentation filed to secure them.
This environment has led to billion dollar lawsuits back and forth between monolithic tech giants of industry, confusion over what is or is not patentable, vague overreaching patents being issued that are against consumer interests and a bitter lobbying war that has caused Congressional inaction and allowed the directorship of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to remain vacant for nearly two years.
Now Ms. Michelle Lee, the current Deputy Director of the USPTO is being nominated by the Obama administration to take over the top job and it appears she is destined to be approved by Congress. Her impeccable credentials include a master’s degree from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science and a JD from Stanford Law School. She spent five years working as a patent attorney for Fenwick & West, nine years as Google’s deputy general counsel, additional time as the head of the USPTO’s Menlo Park office and was appointed deputy director of the agency in December of 2013.
Some believe she is too loyal to Google as her former employer, many say much will remain unchanged no matter who runs the USPTO, but there is almost unanimous agreement among the tech sector that things would be far worse if a director with ties to Pharma and other traditionalist sectors had been appointed instead.