Remarks by Director Andrei Iancu at the American Bar Association's Women in IP Law Luncheon

Remarks delivered at the American Bar Association's Women in IP Law Luncheon 

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu

April 20, 2018

Arlington, Virginia

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon, everyone. And thank you, Scott, for that kind introduction. Thank you also to the American Bar Association (ABA) for inviting me to speak today. 

Events like today’s luncheon are important because they serve to breed innovation across our diverse spectrum of communities. The ABA’s commitment to making the legal world a more diverse place is both inspiring and tremendously important, so I’m honored to be here.

Though Austrian-born American film actress Hedy Lamarr is best known for her accomplishments on the screen, her legacy to the world is far greater than any of her films. That’s because Lamarr, who was born in Austria during World War I and left school at age 15 to become an actress, was also a brilliant inventor who made movies by day and labored over pet inventions by night.

Indeed, inventing was Lamarr’s hobby.

She not only had a complete inventing table set up in her house, but she also had equipment in her trailer, where she stayed in-between takes while filming her motion pictures.

One of her inventions, for a new kind of wing shape, was even said to help Howard Hughes make his planes fly faster. Other of Lamarr’s lesser-known inventions include an instant fizzy soda cube and a trash receptacle attached to tissue boxes. 

In late 1940, Lamarr had an idea for a remote-controlled torpedo guidance system that would enable Allied torpedoes to fly undetected by the Nazis. Drawing on her knowledge of military technology gleaned from her first marriage to an arms manufacturer, Lamarr realized that a constantly changing frequency is much harder to jam or detect. Lamarr called her idea “frequency hopping,” that is, when a radio transmitter and receiver are synchronized to change their tuning simultaneously, thereby “hopping” together randomly from frequency to frequency. 

In order to execute on her idea, Lamarr collaborated with her friend George Antheil, a composer who was not only familiar with munitions, but had also recently composed a complicated score that called for mechanically synchronizing sixteen player pianos, as well as xylophones and percussion. 

To reduce Lamarr’s idea to practice, this unlikely pair of inventors embodied their invention in a player-piano-like mechanism, which synchronized the changes between 88 frequenciesthe standard number of keys on a pianoand called for a high-altitude observation plane to steer a radio-controlled torpedo from above.

On June 10, 1941, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil filed a patent application for their “Secret Communication System” featuring diagrams that were originally sketched on two sides of an ordinary no. 10 office envelope.

In August 1942, the pair succeeded in securing U.S. patent no. 2,292,387 for their jamming-proof technology, and they donated it to the U.S. Navy, which ignored the breakthrough until its engineers re-discovered the patent in the mid-1950s. And though Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil never profited from their invention, it was nonetheless a significant and pioneering development in wireless communications.

Indeed, what Hedy Lamarr called “frequency hopping” sparked the idea for spread-spectrum technology, which went on to shape modern technologies such as GPS, Bluetooth in headsets and phones, and U.S. military guided missiles. The basics of the technology are still in use today, and some estimate that it is worth about $30 billion today.

That is what intellectual property is all about.

It’s at the heart of history, and at the heart of our economy. It drives innovation, investment, job creation, and the improvement of the human condition. And, sometimes, it transforms famous Hollywood actresses into patent-holding inventors who literally change the world. 

But Hedy Lamarr is far from the only woman inventor who has made our lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable.  

Take, for instance, Margaret Knight, whoafter witnessing a textile mill accident at the age of 12invented a device that would automatically stop a machine if something got caught in it. By the time Knight was a teenager, her invention was being used in the mills. Later, Knight’s work in a Massachusetts paper bag plant inspired her to develop a machine that cut, folded, and glued flat-bottomed paper shopping bags, thereby eliminating the need for workers to slowly assemble them by hand. 

Knight received U.S. patent no. 220,925 for the invention in 1879.

Almost immediately, Knight’s patented invention hugely impacted the paper industry, and soon paper bags proliferated throughout the retail landscape. Today, literally thousands of machines based on Knight’s idea are still used to produce flat-bottom paper bags, which remain a staple in many grocery stores. 

Or take scientist and inventor Katharine Blodgett, who was the first woman hired by General Electric. During World War II, Blodgett contributed important research to military needs like gas masks, smoke screens, and a new de-icing technique for airplane wings. 

But it was her work in chemistry that resulted in her most influential invention: non-reflective glass, for which she received U.S. patent no. 2,220,660. Initially used in camera lenses and movie projectors, Blodgett’s “invisible” glass had military applications, such as wartime submarine periscopes. Today, we use non-reflective glass in eyeglasses, car windshields, and computer screens.

In many ways, we stand on the shoulders of women like Hedy Lamarr, Margaret Knight, and Katharine Blodgett, whose ingenuity, creativity, and inventions have inspired us, motivated us, and dramatically improved our lives.

The stories of these remarkable women speak to the world about the vital role that women play when it comes to innovation, and at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), women have long played an extremely vital role, too. 

Indeed, the USPTO has a long tradition of women in influential roles, starting with Clara Barton. Most of you know Clara Barton as the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881. But, in fact, she began her career with the Patent Office as a clerk in 1855. While there, she became one of the first high-level female clerks in the federal government, earning equal pay to her male counterparts.

She was a pioneer in more ways than one!

Today, at the agency I am now honored to lead, women comprise 36 percent of our total workforce, and 39 percent of our senior executives. In Trademarks, Office of Policy and International Affairs, Office of Chief Financial Officer, and Office of the General Counsel, approximately 63 percent of our workforce is female.

And while half of women in STEM jobs leave their fields after a decade, at the USPTO, there is less than 5 percent attrition for female patent examiners over that same time. These numbers are important because they reflect the USPTO’s mission, which is to promote American innovation across all geographic regions of the country and across all demographics.  

At the USPTO, we also support a network of 16 employee resource groups called “affinity groups,” which help us attract, retain, and advance highly qualified, diverse employees. Several of these groups are focused on women, including: 

  • Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), 
  • Network of Executive Women (NEW), 
  • Federally Employed Women (FEW), and 
  • Women in Technology and Science (WITS) at the Rocky Mountain Regional Office. 

In addition to advancing diversity, these groups provide strong peer support networks for women at the USPTO, which in turn promotes career development. Plus, members of these groups are leaders and role models in their respective communities, advocating for IP and further encouraging innovation more broadly. 

I’m very proud to lead an agency that values the contributions of its employees regardless of who they are, or their background.

At the same time, however, I am troubled by the fact that women are underrepresented in the innovation ecosystem. Among other things, not a lot of women entrepreneurs are getting venture capital funding.  

In fact, just 3 percent of America’s venture capital-backed startups are led by women. It’s also troubling that women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the United States despite the fact that they fill close to half of all jobs in our economy. Looking ahead, growth in jobsespecially higher-paying jobswill come in large part from STEM-related fields.

According to a Department of Commerce report, STEM jobs are being created at three times the rate of non-STEM positions. And according to the American Association of University Women, the U.S. will need almost 2 million new engineering and computing professionals in the next seven years. 

This is all good, as a general principle.  

But to maximize our potential as a nation, it is critically important that women and other groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in the innovation ecosystem be included. If we want to continue out-innovating and out-performing our economic competitors in the global economy, we must do more to increase the participation of women in STEM fields.

To that end, the USPTO is advocating for women inventors and entrepreneurs. Among other things, we hold women’s entrepreneurship symposiums, which focus on women inventors, entrepreneurs and the importance of intellectual property. Last month, furthermore, we highlighted remarkable women inventors in our lobby daily. And next Thursday, at World IP Day, the theme will be“Powering Change: Women in Innovation and Creativity.”

More needs to be done, and it will take all of us to go into our communities and lead, teach, and highlight the great accomplishments of women in STEM. Because in order to encourage the next generation of women inventors and entrepreneurs, we must at least promote role models that the next generation can look up to.

Broadening and further diversifying our innovation ecosystem is something I am fully committed to, as I lead the USPTO.

Let me turn briefly to some of our other priorities at the PTO. I spoke at some length about this last week, before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I won’t repeat all that I said then—the remarks are on the USPTO website if you want to read them—but I will emphasize just a few key points: 

First, we must create a new narrative that defines our patent system by the excitement of invention, the brilliance of our inventors—men and women from a broad spectrum of our innovation ecosystem, and the incredible benefits they bring to society. 

Second, we must drive towards predictable, reliable, and high-quality IP rights.

This means that on the front-end, and among other things, we must try to increase the ability of our examiners to surface the most pertinent prior art, including through the use of enhanced technology.  And the quality of the patent applications coming into the PTO in the first instance must also increase on average. 

And our post-grant proceedings must be balanced and fair to both patent owners and challengers alike. To that end, we are reviewing the various aspects of the proceedings to ensure that we do strike the appropriate balance.

Third, on patentable subject matter, we must try to better define and clarify the analysis our examiners are expected to do in light of the recent Supreme Court cases.

We have just issued a new guidance memorandum addressing the recent Berkheimer case. 

In the memo, we specify to examiners how to support and document, expressly in writing, their determinations of what is conventional in step two of the Mayo/Alice test. Plus, we explain that the analysis for conventionality is the same as the analysis under Section 112 as to whether an element is so well-known that it need not be described in detail in the patent specification. 

Our examiners are used to, and have experience with, Section 112 analyses, so hopefully this will help simplify and clarify the approach to this aspect of the Mayo-Alice test. We issued a memo on this subject now, because this case just recently came out. We may have further guidance on other issues pertaining to Section 101 in the months to come. 

Let me leave you with one more story of a remarkable inventor who exemplifies the brilliance and perseverance of American innovation:  Susann Keohane.

Susann is currently IBM’s Global Research Leader for the Aging Initiative, working to develop solutions and technology-enabled services for the elderly.

Why does she do this? 

Because of her grandmother, who suffered an aneurysm when she was in her eighties. And her grandmother’s determination to learn to walk and talk again, despite daunting challenges, is what inspires Susann. 

For over 10 years, she has focused her research on accessible technology for people with disabilities and the aging population. Her inventions combine cognitive technology, the Internet of Things, and other emerging technologies to improve the quality of life for those in need.  

Importantly, Susann is an IBM Master Inventor who holds 114 U.S. patents. 

Susann was with me on stage at South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas, to unveil the new patent cover, which we will start using with patent number 10 million in a few months. Susann told me in Texas that she hopes to receive patents with the new coverand more than one! 

Susann Keohane, Hedy Lamarr, Margaret Knight, Katherine Blodgett, and many others exemplify the brilliance of American invention, working within the context of our intellectual property system.

It is no accident that all of this fantastic innovation, continuously flowing since the founding of our Republic, happened here, in the United States, where patent rights are written into our Constitution with the explicit goal of promoting human progress. 

Our patents incentivize and protect these remarkable advances in the human condition. And our patents are an indelible record of these human achievements, forever new, forever urging us ahead. 

Working togetherpeople in this room, leaders in government, and the rest of the IP communitywe have a unique opportunity to ensure our patent system meets its full constitutional mandate “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Thank you all again for the privilege of speaking here today.  It’s an honor to be with you.

And now, I’d be happy to answer any questions that you might have.