Remarks by Director Iancu at the European Patent Office (EPO) Patent Information Conference

Remarks delivered at the EPO Patent Information Conference

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

October 29, 2019

Bucharest, Romania

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Cătălin (Ștefănescu), for the kind introduction. It’s a great pleasure to be here today.

First, a very special thank you to OSIM President (Ionuţ) Barbu for hosting this event here in Romania and especially for your warm hospitality; and to EPO President (Antonio) Campinos for the invitation to speak at this EPO conference, and for the special bond and extensive collaboration between the EPO and USPTO. It is truly an honor to share the stage with both of you.

And good afternoon to all of you. Salutari din (“greetings from”) Washington DC!

It is a remarkable feeling for me to return to the place of my birth, while I serve as part of the United States government. I have lived in the United States for almost 40 years, since I was 12. And I believe that I have truly lived the American dream.

But it started here, in Bucharest. This is the place of my childhood, with all the related memories.

And this is the place of my formative years, with “cei sapte ani de acasa” (“the seven years from home”).

It is also here that my love for technology began. Yes, as a child.

I was a scrawny, skinny little kid growing up in the 1970s on the streets of Bucharest, not far from here, close to Hala Traian. I only wanted to play. And I never wanted to eat. Like good Romanian parents, mine would chase me around with food. Because… “copilul trebuie sa manance!” (“The child has to eat.”)

Yet nothing would work. I would simply never eat. Never had the patience, really.

But my parents eventually discovered a trick. They somehow figured out that if they took me to the airport—Baneasa at the time—and I watched planes land and take off, I’d be lost in my wonder of flight, I would as a result stand still with my mouth half open, and they could feed me anything.

My fascination with flight started there, at Baneasa, and has continued ever since.

I then became an aerospace engineer. I worked at Hughes Aircraft for a few years before going to law school. And then my career in the innovation system began.

But perhaps it is not surprising that my love for flight and innovation began here, in Romania. For Romania has a long history of flight innovation.

First, there was Traian Vuia and his first patented “aeroplane automobile,” nicknamed “Liliacul” (or, the bat), which flew for the first time in March 1906 for 12 meters at an altitude of 1 meter.

Then there was Aurel Vlaicu, whose first aeroplane—“Vlaicu I”—flew in June 1910 for 50 meters at an altitude of 3 or 4 meters. Vlaicu sadly died just three years later, trying to pilot his plane across the Carpathian mountains. Today, the Baneasa airport—where I first fell in love with flight—is named after Aurel Vlaicu.

And then, of course, there is Henri Coanda. Coanda was the Romanian academic, physicist, inventor, and aeronautical engineer who built the world’s first jet airplane.

Born here in Bucharest in 1886, Coanda became fascinated as a child by the power of the wind. After graduating from a military high school in 1903 with the rank of major sergeant, Coanda continued his studies at the School of Artillery, Genius and Marine Officers in Bucharest.

But Coanda’s inventive spirit was incompatible with military life, so he left the military and began working in France with the famous French engineer Gustave Eiffel. In 1908, Coanda came up with the idea of the jet aircraft and by 1909, Coanda built the first prototype. Consisting of a conventional piston engine driving a multi-bladed centrifugal blower which exhausted into a duct, the "Coanda 1910,” as it was called, was presented at the 1910 International Aeronautics Exhibition in Paris, where the unusual aircraft attracted significant attention.

That same year, while testing the engine of his plane, Coanda noticed a phenomenon in which a jet flow attaches itself to a nearby surface and remains attached even when the surface curves away from the initial jet direction. This came to be known as the "Coanda effect,” and it is still applied in flight technology today.

Coanda was a prolific inventor throughout his life, and later obtained several patents. In fact, he contributed some 250 inventions to a variety of fields. Today, I and probably most of you came to Bucharest through the Henri Coanda International Airport, as Otopeni, Romania’s premier airport, is now named after him—deservedly so.

And just a few years earlier in the United States, Wilbur and Orville Wright—known as The Wright Brothers—found the key to manned fight stability, and made the very first powered human flights, in December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They subsequently obtained U.S. Patent number 821,393 in 1906—one of the most famous and consequential patents in American history.

These incredible inventors—Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Romanians Henri Coanda, Aurel Vlaicu and Traian Vuia—ushered in the modern era of human flight. And the world hasn’t been the same since.

Just look at us now: air flight is ubiquitous, and has many forms. Plus, we went to space. This summer we celebrated 50 years of man walking on the moon. Earlier this month, we watched the first all-woman team walk in space—two NASA astronauts. And, of course, we have thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, and vehicles exploring distant planets and the deep space beyond.

That’s the power of human innovation.

But for all of it to happen, we need a robust IP system that incentivizes and protects that innovation. Let me be clear: There is no known substitute. Humanity simply does not know progress without the modern IP system.

Think about it: human civilization has existed for thousands and thousands of years. Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Aztecs, and countless other societies across the world and across time. And despite millennia of human existence, just a couple of hundred years ago, we would have arrived here on foot or on horse or by boat, just like they were doing thousands of years ago. We would be having this meeting by candlelight, just like they were doing thousands of years ago. And just a couple of hundred years ago, anesthesia for surgery was still just a shot of whiskey. (Or Tuica, here in Romania.)

Despite millennia of human existence, the state of the human condition just two hundred years ago was about the same as it was in ancient Rome. The tremendous progress we take for granted today has mostly been made over the past 200 years. And only in the context of modern IP systems that started about two hundred years ago with the American Constitution, which expressly called for patents precisely for this purpose.

The main reason this level of progress worked while all other prior systems failed is that the modern patent system for the first time democratized invention. Anyone could participate. No need to be friends with the Crown. No need to be wealthy or to have a patron or, frankly, any funds at all. Not even a requirement to manufacture—the modern IP system has been open to all. Anyone now can now invent, and everyone is now incentivized by our modern patent systems to do so.

And the results have been remarkable. The pace of technological progress in the modern era far exceeds all such progress in all of the millennia of human existence combined. Our modern patent systems have given rise to a spark of ingenuity and development the magnitude of which humanity has never before known.

Electricity and the telephone; the automobile and the airplane; recombinant DNA and DNA synthesis; the microprocessor, genetics and cancer treatments. And so much more. Despite the millennia of human existence, none of this was possible until the modern patent system. Because as American President Abraham Lincoln said, our patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

Instead of secrecy and medieval guilds, a well-balanced patent system incentivizes disclosure and competition to forever create the next improvement.

First, IP is the ultimate expression of global creativity and talent. Patents, trademarks and copyrights encourage this creativity because they incentivize people to share their ideas. In return, those people receive the support and protection of a strong IP system.

Second, IP promotes competition and forces technical advances. If the first inventor is successful, others want to partake of the new market or the new technology. But because that first particular application is patented for a period of time, competitors are forced to invent something different, often something better.

And so, a pro-competitive cycle develops. In other words, intellectual property protection creates perpetual innovation, and at accelerating rates.

There can be no legitimate debate about the success of intellectual property protection. Various studies, including from our Chief Economist at the USPTO, find that IP drives economic prosperity.

For example: IP-intensive industries directly and indirectly support about one-third of all U.S. employment. The share of total U.S. GDP attributable to IP-intensive industries is about 40%. Workers in IP-intensive industries earn almost 50% higher wages, on average, than workers in non-IP-intensive industries in the private sector.

The approval of a startup’s first patent application increases its employment growth over the next five years by a remarkable 36 percentage points on average, and the effect on sales growth is even larger. Plus, patent protection motivates U.S. companies to invest 20-30% more in R&D than they would otherwise (if patent protection was eliminated).

Some of these numbers are repeated elsewhere in the world. For example, recent studies from the European Patent Office find remarkably similar results when it comes to IP intensive industries.

It is clear: a robust IP system is critically important to the prosperity of any modern economy. In fact, as Stanford Professor Stephen Haber found, “there are no wealthy countries with weak patent rights, and there are no poor countries with strong patent rights.”

And so, as we embark on the next wave of technological and industrial revolutions, we must ensure that we continue to have a robust IP system, with rights that are reliable, predictable, and meaningfully enforceable. This is, in fact, more important now than ever. Because irrespective of the incredible advancements we have made to date, I firmly believe that we have seen nothing yet: artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, quantum computing, biotechnology, personalized medicine, 5G communications, and so much more.

Plus, there is convergence between some of these fields, such as artificial intelligence in personalized medicine, and the like. And there will be technologies that we can’t even imagine yet. We are just getting started.

Our world is changing indeed, and it is changing at forever faster rates. Our intellectual property systems must be robust enough, and flexible enough, to accommodate, and indeed encourage, these new technologies.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. According to the WIPO Technology Trends 2019-Artificial Intelligence Publication, we know that machine learning is the dominant AI field “and is included in more than one-third of all identified inventions.” The field is growing fast. At the USPTO, we’ve doubled the number of examiners who are reviewing AI applications.

But are our IP laws equipped to deal with the new aspects of this technology? Some of these patent applications pose certain unique and interesting new questions.

For example: what level of detail is necessary in a patent disclosure as to the structure and functioning of the algorithm that underlines a new AI tool? An AI algorithm, that by definition is capable to learn on its own, sometimes performs certain tasks in ways unknown to the programmers. So, how can the inner workings be disclosed such that one of ordinary skill can replicate the invention without undue experimentation (a requirement of our patent system)?

Another question we must grapple with is whether current legal concepts of an “inventor” need to be changed. This question may become gray when machines are able to create based on human programming. United States law currently mandates that the inventor must be a natural person.

Turning to the enforcement side, who actually would be liable if the AI itself causes infringement?

There are a host of other questions, too, including ownership, subject matter eligibility, and more.

The USPTO is focused on these questions, and we’re seeking public input as well. We have recently published a notice asking these and other patent-related questions, which you can see on our website at And we will soon publish another notice, with several new questions aimed at other areas of IP, such as copyrights, trademarks, data protection, and the like.

Artificial intelligence is also impacting the way we work in government IP offices, including the USPTO.

Specifically, our respective offices are utilizing the advances in AI to help our examiners as they review the applications coming in.

At the USPTO, for example, integrating AI to augment classification and search is a very high priority. Over the past year, we’ve explored using AI for search expansion and refinement, assist with patent classification tools, and locating similar images. The most promising of these AI capabilities have already been identified. They’re also being prioritized for inclusion into our search system in order to pilot with examiners.

And on the trademarks side, we’ve been exploring using AI for image search to help find prior similar images, and also to identify fraudulent specimens.

We’re also looking into using AI to identify, reduce, and mitigate unauthorized or other improper activities related to trademark matters. For example, we have a special task force in trademarks that is developing some AI tools to detect a pattern of manipulation of images typical of doctored specimens of use. Additionally, the task force is using AI to detect the level of similarity between images to identify when the same or similar image has been submitted in multiple applications by multiple applicants to substantiate use of the mark in U.S. commerce.

These efforts are helpful, but much work remains. We are, in fact, currently looking for a Chief AI Strategist, someone who can lead our AI operations and advance the shared understanding of how to best implement at the USPTO the opportunities presented by AI.

The USPTO also has bilateral and multilateral engagements with other IP offices to explore AI tools.

One such effort is the “Image Search Project,” a cooperative effort of the TM5, the 5 largest trademark offices in the world. This project incorporates machine learning to enhance image search database systems to improve trademark examination.

And, of course, we look forward to continuing our close collaboration with the EPO on a variety of IP issues. Work in AI is truly international, and the United States and the EPO play a big part.

There are also many other areas of international cooperation between our various IP offices. For example, many of our various offices cooperate on the Global Dossier, making it easier for examiners in one office to see the work done by examiners in another office.

Plus, there is the Patent Cooperation Highway (PPH), which allows one office to expedite the review of applications that have already been reviewed by another office. For example, if a patent application is first reviewed and allowed by the EPO and an applicant uses the PPH for examination in the United States, the USPTO will examine that application on an accelerated schedule and its likelihood of success is much higher.

The bottom line is that all of our offices must continue and even enhance work together to support innovation and entrepreneurship around the world.

For human advancement has consistently been pushed forward by our inventors. As I often say, they are our heroes.

One of America’s greatest inventor heroes was Thomas Edison. He invented a light bulb, gramophone (or, “speaking machine,” as they called it then), motion pictures, and so much more. Indeed, he invented the modern system of inventing, with his innovation laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.

A contemporaneous scientific publication written in 1878 said, “Mr. Edison, with his marvelous inventions, is pushing the whole world ahead in its march to the highest civilization.”

That is what inventors do: they continuously push all of us to the highest civilization. And that is why we in this profession strive to help them and to support them.

I am convinced that because of inventors, and the work we all do, the future of innovation is bright indeed.

And what would Traian Vuia, Aurel Vlaicu, Henri Coanda and the Wright Brothers think about that future, if they were here with us today? What would they think of drones that can fly on their own without a pilot?

Aurel Vlaicu died because he insisted on piloting his own prototype across the mountains. He did not let another pilot fly his plane, much less let the plane fly without a pilot at all.

Specifically, what would they think of the coming convergence, where self-flying drones are combined with artificial intelligence so that they might perhaps fly with complete independence, without any human input whatsoever? Just close your eyes for a second, and imagine those guys working and inventing today.

If I had to guess, these great inventors would actually be thrilled to see how far we have come, and excited to help us go much further. Because that is what great inventors do: always looking for the next advance, always working to push us ahead.

As for us, for you and me, we are about to experience personally and most directly all these new machines, and so much more. And all of it very soon. Because the future keeps coming forever faster.

I look forward to continued collaborations between and among our nations, to build upon all the successes we’ve had working together thus far, and to secure that future on behalf of innovation around the world.

Multumesc, si va urez mult succes in continuare! (“Thank you, and I wish you much continued success.”)

It has truly been an honor to be with all of you here today.