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Google's patent chief slammed the US patent office – now she's the agency's acting director

Ex-Googler Michelle Lee latest to step through revolving door

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Google's former head of patents and patent strategy Michelle Lee has been appointed as deputy director of the US Patent and Trademark Office and will run the troubled agency until a new director is named, the USPTO announced on Wednesday.

Speaking at a conference at Stanford University in 2007, Lee said that the US patent system was "in crisis," and that it was "out-of-balance [and] needs to be remedied."

At that time, the backlog of patents was troubling. "The Patent Office is overburdened," she said. "The volume of patents going in is huge. And the quality of patents coming out – it could be better."

Beginning on January 13, she'll be in charge of trying to clear out that backlog and improve the quality of the patents the USPTO rubber-stamps. Reuters reports that the unexamined-patent backlog had grown to about 722,000 in December 2011, but there have been improvements since then: it had shrunk to 591,665 by last August, and the patent office reports that applications now number 590,070.

The quality of patents is, of course, another matter entirely, and is at the root of many of the frivolous "patent troll" lawsuits that were recently targeted by legislation in the US Congress. The US Supreme Court, for its part, has agreed to hear a case involving the ability and extent to which software can be patented.

Commenting on that case, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) staff attorney Julie Samuels – who holds the marvelously titled Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents – said that examining software patents as a whole was a step in the right direction, "but the root of that problem, which has largely been missing from the public debate, is patent quality, specifically of software-related inventions."

Lee will have her work cut out for her in a thankless job attempting to balance the rights of inventors with the need to protect the investments and innovations of companies – not to mention tamping down the voracious litigation hunger of trolls, or more delicately, of non-practicing technology entities.

Lee is not unfamiliar with the arcane intricacies of the USPTO. After her work with Google, she headed-up the agency's Silicon Valley office.

The acting USPTO directorship has been empty since Teresa Stanek Rea left that position in November and Commissioner for Patents Peggy Focarino stepped in as temporary caretaker. Stanek Rea had assumed the temporary position when USPTO director David Kappos – who was credited with helping to reduce the patent-application backlog – departed this January after three-and-a-half years in the job.

As Reuters reports, it's unknown when a permanent USPTO director will be named. ®

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