By Jeff John Roberts
January 19, 2017

The question of who will lead the U.S. Patent Office in the Trump administration, a key post when it comes to American innovation policy, has been a hot topic in legal circles for weeks.

Now, on the day before the Inauguration, it looks like the mystery is over: Multiple reports say the current Director of the USPTO, Michelle Lee, will stay on her post.

The Obama administration named Lee, a former Google lawyer, to the position in 2012 at a time when the Patent Office was struggling under a large backlog and criticism that its examiners issued too many patents for obvious “inventions.”

Lee recently met with Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, which in hindsight appears to have been an interview to keep her on.

Lee’s tenure has generally been well regarded by industry and the intellectual property bar despite a wage scandal involving hundreds of patent examiners who billed the government for work they didn’t do.

Professor Dennis Crouch, who writes an authoritative blog on patent law, praised Lee’s overall in a post earlier this week.

“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 [Supreme Court decisions] Alice and Mayo and the long-complaint-of backlog of pending cases is substantially reduced,” Crouch wrote.

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Meanwhile, the reports of Lee staying on were hailed by the tech industry, which has long complained about low-quality patents and the persistence of “patent trolls,” which are shell companies that do nothing but while lawsuits many regard as extortionate.

“This is a wise decision, bringing continuity to critical issues at a critical time. It supports the patent office’s ongoing efforts to improve patent quality under Lee’s leadership. Lee comes from the tech industry and has a deep understanding of patents and how to support both current innovators and next generation innovation,” said Ed Black, the President of the Computer & Communications Industry Association in a statement.

Not everyone will be pleased by Lee staying on. According to Russ Binns, a lawyer and CEO of the patent holding company AST, many expected Trump to appoint someone from the pharma industry, which favors expanded patent rights, to lead the Patent Office.

Binns added the leading candidates for the post, in addition to Lee, have been Phil Johnson, head of IP policy at Johnson & Johnson, and Randall Rader, the former head of patent appeals court, who quit in the midst of an ethics scandal.

Paul Fucito, a spokesperson for the Patent Office, declined to comment about Lee staying on.

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