by Hon. Michelle Lee. Lee was the Undersecretary of Commerce and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (2015-2017).
The America Invents Act (AIA), which passed on September 16, 2011, brought about some of the most significant changes to our patent system in over 50 years. The Act included an assortment of reforms from a transition to first inventor to file in the United States, the establishment of processes for third party challenges to granted patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the creation of the first regional offices of the USPTO, providing inventors the option for accelerated patent examination, and more.
Many of the AIA reforms strengthened our patent system. For example, as a former Director of the USPTO, I cannot overstate the importance of the Agency’s ability to set its own fees and create an operating reserve. This enabled the USPTO to get through periods of government shutdown and to invest in longer-term initiatives such as much-needed information technology upgrades, hire more examiners to reduce the patent application backlog and provide additional training for examiners. The transition to a first inventor to file system was needed to harmonize the U.S. with the rest of the world. The establishment of the first regional offices of the USPTO made our intellectual property system more accessible to all, and of course, prioritized examination, allowing inventors to accelerate the examination of certain patents, makes business sense.
After passage by Congress, the attention turned to the USPTO, and its massive effort to implement the AIA. Then-USPTO Director David Kappos and his dedicated team at the Agency worked hard to implement the AIA in view of numerous proposed rules, soliciting input from stakeholders along the way. By 2013, the USPTO had completed substantially most of the initial AIA rulemaking, including for the post-patent grant review proceedings.
In 2015, I became Director of the USPTO, and the AIA changes had been in place for barely a few years. Leading the USPTO is a great honor that comes with a tremendous responsibility. As a result, I undertook as a priority to assess how these fledgling and complex reforms were going, and to make improvements where needed. Under my leadership, the USPTO continued to solicit feedback on the AIA reforms via numerous requests for comments to proposed rules and stakeholder engagements. This resulted in the implementation of multiple changes, including to the claim construction standard of soon-to-expire patents to be consistent with the (Phillips) standard used in district court litigation, submission of new testimonial evidence with a patent owner’s preliminary response, the addition of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11-type certifications requiring a duty of candor in papers filed in AIA trials to prevent misuse of the proceedings, and more.
As anyone familiar with rulemaking knows, this process takes time, and that is the way it should be, as agency rules (like legislation) have significant and broad impact on all parts of our society. New rules (and laws) should be promulgated deliberately and with all due consideration of input from all stakeholders, driven by data, in compliance with the law, and with compromise to accommodate the often-times disparate and competing needs.
After the patent community had a reasonable period of time to adjust to and experience the many AIA reforms, we began hearing feedback about additional improvements needed to the AIA trials including, for example, in the areas of motions to amend, the claim construction standard and multiple petitions filed at or around the same time on a single patent. As expected for such complex policy and procedural matters, there was often little consensus on whether and what changes were needed. Given this, my team and I at the USPTO believed it important to gather data and broad stakeholder input on these and other issues raised. As a result of these efforts, we came up with a number of proposed changes and drafted proposed rules for comment. For instance, on the claim construction standard, we recognized the awkwardness and inconsistency of having the validity of patent claims construed under one standard in AIA trials, yet a different standard for patent infringement analysis in federal district court, especially when the petitioner in the USPTO proceeding was often the accused infringer in district court. To provide greater fairness and consistency, I thought it important to change the claim construction standard for all patents in AIA trials to the Phillips standard used in federal district courts.
By this time, it was the fall of 2016 with an election pending. As was customary, the then-current administration asked the USPTO to stop all significant rulemaking to allow the next administration the courtesy of defining and implementing its priorities. So, we had to pull the package of proposed reforms in the midst of being prepared for publication. While not published during my tenure, these proposals, studies and data put the Agency and my successor, former USPTO Director Andrei Iancu, in a better position to implement needed reforms more quickly. I was pleased to see one of the first reforms implemented in the next administration was changing the claim construction standard in AIA trials to that used in district court for all patents.
As I reflect on my tenure on this 10th anniversary of the AIA, the talented USPTO team and I accomplished much, including the establishment of regional offices to better support innovators (especially individual inventors and small businesses), achieving the passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, making initial improvements to the post-patent grant review proceedings while laying the foundation for more, numerous quality initiatives to ensure the issuance of stronger, more reliable patent rights, launching an open data initiative to provide access to the USPTO’s rich data, bringing artificial intelligence to the Agency to improve its operations, and spearheading the All-In-STEM initiative and other efforts to ensure our intellectual property system is more widely accessible to all.
Few people have had the privilege and responsibility of being the steward of this important Agency so critical to American innovation. As we await the nomination of a new USPTO Director, it is important to keep in mind the job of a USPTO Director is to keep a steady hand on the tiller and to make improvements thoughtfully and deliberately, with careful consideration of the law, stakeholder input and the data, recognizing that with complex policies and procedures and competing stakeholder interests, consensus is often difficult to achieve.
Former USPTO Directors Dickinson, Kappos, and Iancu, each of whom contributed to the enactment and/or implementation of the AIA, have all been dedicated leaders who did what they thought best when faced with the many challenges of their tenure. Just as I benefited from the foundations laid and works-in-progress achieved by my predecessors, the next Director will benefit from the cumulative efforts and learnings of all prior Directors. Our intellectual property system, like our innovations, is constantly evolving. Therefore, all stakeholders must constantly work together to achieve a balanced intellectual property system for the benefit of our inventors, economy and society. That is why I chose the dynamic and impactful practice of intellectual property law, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of any organization with which Ms. Lee may be affiliated.” Lee is vice president at Amazon Web Services and spent a decade at Google leading their patent team prior to her term as USPTO Director.