Donald W. Banner was born in Chicago on February 24, 1924. He was a P-47 fighter pilot during World War II and was shot down in Europe and held as a prisoner of war until 1945. After the war he received an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University and law degrees from the University of Detroit and The John Marshall Law School.
He was a patent attorney for Borg-Warner Corp. for 25 years, working on projects that included development of automatic transmissions for automobiles. He was chief patent counsel for his last 12 years with the company. Three of his five children also were intellectual property attorneys.
He was first nominated to be commissioner of patents and trademarks by President Richard Nixon but decided not to accept the appointment. In 1978 he was nominated again, by President Jimmy Carter, and took the oath of office on June 5, 1978.
In several public speeches during his tenure Banner decried the office’s lack of funding. Delays in granting patents were rising and funds were needed to modernize the office. In a speech shortly before appointment he said the office should have direct access to the patent and trademark fees it collected. A few months later the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill for that purpose, but it was not enacted.
In 1979 an industry group on Patent and Information Policy, reporting to a cabinet-level committee on innovation appointed by President Carter and working with the USPTO, recommended major changes in the U.S. patent system. They included (1) more funds for the USPTO, (2) legislation to allow any party to request reexamination of a patent at any time during the life of the patent, (3) legislation to establish a specialized patent court for patent cases, and (4) lowering the cost of patent litigation by reducing the time and expense of discovery. President Carter made the recommendations to Congress.
In 1979 the USPTO installed one of the most extensive online networks in the federal government, to provide better information about the status and location of patent applications. Banner directed U.S. negotiations in Geneva on a revision of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. Ten countries, including the United States, signed the revised treaty. Trademark filings increased 50 percent from 1975 to 1977.
Banner resigned on June 30, 1979, and became a partner in a law firm based in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, testifying as an expert in a large number of patent infringement suits in U.S. district courts. He also served as director of intellectual property law programs at George Washington University and The John Marshall Law School.
In 1990, eleven years after he left the USPTO, he served as president of the Foundation for a Creative America, an organization formed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first American patent and copyright laws, both enacted in 1790. The foundation raised $2 million from private sources. With the cooperation of the USPTO and the Copyright Office, the foundation held a week-long series of educational and social events in Washington in May 1990. Harry F. Manbeck Jr., who was then head of the USPTO, and eight former heads of the office attended.
President George H.W. Bush issued a Bicentennial Proclamation. Great living inventors and creators of the 20th century—including John Bardeen, Jack Kilby, Robert Noyce, Steven Spielberg, and Stevie Wonder—received awards. Entertainers included Henry Mancini and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. The foundation published a 900-page book of the proceedings of the celebration of the bicentennial and republished a 600-page book of the proceedings of a similar celebration of the patent centennial in Washington in 1891, which some people noted had been held a year late.
Banner died on January 29, 2006, in Tucson, Arizona.
Bloomberg BNA, Weekly Patent, Trademark & Copyright Journal (1978-79).
Foundation for a Creative America, Proceedings, Events, and Addresses of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Patent and Copyright Laws (1990).
Foundation for a Creative America, Centennial Proceedings of the U.S. Patent System 1891 (Bicentennial Commemorative Edition 1990).
USPTO, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks (1978-79).
USPTO, The Story of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1988).