Vacancy at patent office 'untenable,' senator says

Tuesday - 6/3/2014, 1:44pm EDT

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Finance Committee, is calling on President Barack Obama to nominate a permanent director for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Michelle Lee (USPTO photo)

The top spot at the patent agency has remained vacant since former director David Kappos departed the agency in February 2013.

In a letter to Obama and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Hatch said the vacancy "hampers the agency's ability to influence policy and make long-term plans."

Michelle Lee, a former Google executive who led the USPTO satellite office in Silicon Valley, has been serving as de facto head of the agency since being named deputy director by Pritzker last December.

Hatch said his call for a permanent director is not a reflection of Lee's performance.

"By all accounts, Deputy Director Michelle Lee has done an admirable job juggling the functions and duties of both director and deputy director," he wrote in the letter to Obama and Pritzker. "But this arrangement simply cannot continue. Without a director backed by a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, the USPTO does not have a leader who can engage in the type of strategic and long-term planning that is crucial for ensuring the USPTO's continued effectiveness."

Letter: Vacancy 'unfair, untenable, and unacceptable'

As acting director, Lee "does not possess the same clear mandate as would a presidentially-nominated and Senate-confirmed director," Hatch sad. "Leaving Ms. Lee to shoulder the burden of USPTO leadership alone is unfair, untenable, and unacceptable for our country's intellectual property agency."

Hatch said having permanent leadership in place is important as the agency embarks on a number of new initiatives, including opening satellite offices across the country and implementing other pieces of the 2011 America Invents Act. USPTO is also still working to cut through a hefty backlog of unexamined patent applications, which, as of April 2014, numbered more than 619,000.

"These are just a few of the challenges and opportunities facing the USPTO that are needlessly complicated by the absence of a director to provide a forward- looking vision," the letter stated.

Hatch added: "Leaving the agency without a permanent director for nearly a year and a half without so much as a public explanation is inexcusable."

House approves budget increase for USPTO

Meanwhile, the House recently approved USPTO's fiscal 2015 budget, paving the way for a 14 percent budget increase at the agency.

Under the appropriations measure passed by the House April 30, the USPTO's budget would be increased to $3.5 billion, which is the full amount of fees the agency estimates it will collect next year and an increase of $434 million above current levels.

PTO is able to access excess funds collected through fees, but it first must obtain permission from lawmakers to do so.

According to a House budget summary, the agency's operating reserve is slated to grow to more than $1.07 billion by next fiscal year. But House appropriators said they're "perplexed" about the growth of the reserve funding "given the current fragile state of IT infrastructure" at the agency.

The appropriations bill "encourages PTO to reexamine its fee structure and maximize investment in addressing IT deficiencies as soon as possible."

RELATED STORIES:

PTO head Kappos stepping down

'Give it a rest,' USPTO chief tells patent critics