The USPTO only houses a handful of political appointees – Director (Michelle Lee), Deputy Director (Russ Slifer), Chief of Staff (Vikrum Aiyer); and a couple more senior advisors including the Chief Communications Officer (Patrick Ross). These folks will all resign on or before noon on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. Through an Agency procedure put in place by former Director James Rogan, Commissioner for Patents (Drew Hirshfeld) will then step-in as acting director. One unlikely potential kink in the tradition is that this is the first presidential transition with competing PTO leaders – namely the four Regional Office directors (John Cabeca, Molly Kocialski; Cristal Sheppard, and Hope Shimabuku) any of whom could step-in as acting director (recognizing that is the pathway taken by Michelle Lee). However, the Regional Directors are really outside of the ordinary PTO chain of command.
Recognize that these transitions and traditions are subject to immediate adjustment by the incoming Trump Administration. I would expect significant shake-up in PTO Senior Staff in the coming months: General Counsel, regional PTO Directors, and perhaps Solicitor and PTAB Director. However, every president struggles through how to deal with career federal employees loyal to the efforts of the prior administration.
I want to give my congratulations and thanks to Michelle Lee, Russ Slifer, and other members of PTO Leadership. The past five years have been a time of tremendous shifting in the patent system led by the legislature (the AIA of 2011) and the Supreme Court (Alice/Mayo). PTO Leadership has offered a stabilizing force with a constant push toward an efficient and high quality system. Many patentees were saved by by the PTO’s intentionally narrow reading of Alice and Mayo and the long-complaint-of backlog of pending cases is substantially reduced. These days I hear two major competing complaints: (1) the PTO continues to issue too many invalid patents and (2) the PTAB is too tough on patentees. It will be interesting to see where we arrive four years from now.
[Errors in this post are all mine, but I want to thank former PTO General Counsel Bernie Knight for helpful pointers]