Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at the Consumer Electronics Show

Consumer Electronics Show

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

January 6, 2017, 1 p.m.

Las Vegas Convention Center

Las Vegas, NV

Thank you, Michael and good afternoon, everyone! It’s great to be here at CES, and to see so many familiar faces. I’m very honored and excited to have the opportunity to participate in the 50th anniversary of the world’s foremost innovation event. Congratulations to CTA on reaching such a significant milestone and thank you for inviting me back.  When I spoke at CES last year before the “What’s Next for Patents?” panel, I noted that intellectual property is—and will continue to be—one of the more important public policy issues influencing our nation’s future economic health. As always, CES panels are about looking forward.

So I’d like to tell you how the work we’ve done at the USPTO during this administration puts the agency in a spot where we are well-suited to tackle the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Today, we are financially more secure thanks to the America Invents Act, a milestone achievement of this administration that gave us, among other things, fee setting authority. Additionally, we are more customer-service oriented and more responsive to stakeholders than ever before. We’ve constantly welcomed—in fact solicited—feedback and input, and are willing to refine and improve where needed. 

We’ve had more Requests for Comment, Proposed Rules, and roundtables than ever before – including on such topics as: our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, or EPQI, our 101 guidance on patentable subject matter, and our Patent Trial and Appeal Board implementation and refinements. We’ve also brought a broader range of services to support American innovators where and when needed, including: Through four regional offices across the country, and over a dozen IP attaches across the globe. And, we’ve worked to provide you with more access to examiner interviews, increasing the number of interview hours by more than 232% in just eight years. Finally, and importantly, the USPTO’s relationships with all of its partners is healthier and stronger than ever before—that’s with the public, our employees, Congress, and within the administration. 

I want to take a brief moment on this topic because I really do believe it is key to the agency’s success – past and future.

Thinking back to even just 10 years ago, our relationship with the public was nowhere near as collaborative, transparent, or productive as it is today. The agency often did not seek much public input on examiner guidance or implementation rules (in fact, almost 10 years ago, the USPTO was sued in Tafas v. Dudas, when it decided to move ahead—over much public opposition— to adopt rules that would have placed additional burdens on patent applicants), and examiner interviews weren’t encouraged as they are today. We have changed that dynamic.

Second, we’ve strengthened our working relationship with our employees. All told, we have enjoyed some of the highest rankings in the Partnership for Public Service’s list of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. And we all know, an engaged workforce produces better work product and services.

We have also maintained a healthy working relationship with Congress on both policy proposals and operational issues. From the passage of AIA, to the Defend Trade Secrets Act, to technical assistance on various legislative proposals, we have engaged with our colleagues on the Hill in impactful ways and the USPTO’s voice is a respected one.

All of this: (1) the greater financial security, (2) the increased customer service orientation, and (3) the better relationships with all of our stakeholders, has enabled us to make real progress on our priorities, and positions us for even greater success going forward.

There is strong evidence of this in a number of important areas, including patent (1) backlog and pendencies, (2) quality, and (3) policy.

During this administration, we have: Reduced the backlog of unexamined patent applications by approximately 30%, despite an average approximately four percent year-over-year increase in filings, reduced our first action pendency by approximately 38%, and reduced total pendency by approximately 25%.

Armed with greater finances and a shrinking backlog, we embarked on an unprecedented effort to enhance patent quality–a core goal of the agency. There is a cost to society when the USPTO issues a patent that we should not issue, just as there is a cost to society when we don’t issue a patent that should issue. That’s why enhancing the quality of the patents in our system has been a top priority of mine throughout my tenure as Director of the USPTO. That means issuing patents that are: accurate, according to requirements of the law, clear, and provide public notice of the patent’s boundaries, and consistently issued across our patent examination corps. We have enhanced the quality of patents in our system, both before they leave our office, through our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, (led by a new Deputy Commissioner and a newly created department within the Patents solely focused on this effort); and after the patents return to the office through our PTAB and other post grant review proceedings.   

Addressing the second prong first, the new PTAB proceedings have significantly changed the patent landscape – both litigation and prosecution. We have had more than 5,000 PTAB petitions filed to date, and these proceedings are meeting our Congressional mandate of providing a faster, more cost efficient quality check on the patents in the system.

Turning to the first prong, on the agency’s efforts to improve the quality of patents before they issue, I launched our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, or EPQI, at the beginning of 2015. Under EPQI, we currently have about a dozen initiatives underway that—I believe—will meaningfully move the needle on enhancing patent quality. Common sense initiatives such as increasing the clarity of the patent record to include greater written explanations of (1) the reasons for allowance, and (2) the examiner’s claim interpretations; getting the most relevant prior art before our examiners as early as possible by taking advantage of state-of-the-art, AI, search technology; measuring more data points on the quality of our work product (in fact, three to five times more data points); using “Big Data” analytic techniques to identify outlying behavior and correcting it with targeted training, and improving how we measure patent quality so we are evaluating for accuracy as well as clarity. All of these efforts lead to greater quality and consistency in the patents we issue, and we have already seen statistically significant improvements and expect more to come going forward! You can learn about our dozen or so quality initiatives on the USPTO’s enhanced patent quality webpage -- at

Going forward, the USPTO is also very mindful of its role in the broader IP system to ensure the promotion of innovation and— ultimately—economic growth. This includes ensuring that we do our part to support our country’s next generation of inventors, makers, and innovators of all kinds. That’s why we’ve brought a broader range of services to support American innovators where and when needed, including: The four regional offices and over a dozen IP attachés I mentioned earlier. And our data initiatives.

USPTO regional offices reach entrepreneurs where they are based in Detroit, Denver, Silicon Valley, and Dallas, and the regions surrounding those cities. John Cabeca, the Director of our Silicon Valley Regional Office, is in the audience today. I encourage you to seek him out if you’re a West Coast innovator or entrepreneur looking to engage firsthand with our IP system. In fact, I like to call these offices our “Innovation Embassies,” because they’re hubs of innovation, education and outreach. Through these offices we work with local communities to provide access to resources that allow innovators and companies to compete in our increasingly knowledge-based economy.

The USPTO’s commitment to leveraging our vast repositories of data will continue to be key in the coming years. If you think about it, the USPTO may possess the world’s largest repository of scientific knowledge contained in millions of patent applications, including both domestic and international inventions. But while this information was always available, it wasn’t always easily accessible. Fortunately, times have changed—quite profoundly. Today, under the USPTO’s “Open Data” initiative, the Agency makes patent data all the way back to 1790 available online, with the last 40 years of that data text searchable. And, the USPTO recently released an API so someone with basic programming skills can explore technological, geographic, and industry patent trends, such as: Who is doing research in my area? To whom might I want to reach out for business and/or research collaborations? And Does Las Vegas or San Diego have a higher concentration of scientists/activity in my area?

And, finally, the USPTO can and will continue to lead internationally as our domestic businesses continue to expand into foreign markets. If you are selling into foreign markets—or want to enter them—our IP Attachés can help. Selling products and being competitive in foreign markets, with varied and unfamiliar local IP laws, is a different ball game than in the U.S. Stationed at select U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, our IP attachés are experts who can help U.S. businesses more adeptly navigate foreign IP landscapes to achieve their overseas business goals. I encourage all of you to stop by our booth in Eureka Park, where you can learn more about these and numerous other USPTO resources available to you, many of them for free.

I said the USPTO has achieved a great deal in this Administration, but there’s always more to do. But given what we have accomplished, the agency is well situated to address the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. And, as we look ahead, I’m optimistic that the incoming administration will share our appreciation of the importance of IP. Our President-elect has promised economic growth and job creation, and IP will necessarily be key to achieving that goal.

During the past three years while leading the USPTO, I’ve had the honor and privilege of having many great opportunities and being here to play a small part in CES’s golden anniversary is certainly one of them. It’s both humbling and exciting to be front and center at the global gathering place for innovation and technology and again, I want to express my gratitude to CTA for inviting me. I know that our collaboration will continue as we work together to ensure that our greatest innovations are yet to come. Thank you all for your support in this most important and worthwhile effort. With that, I look forward to hearing what Colin, Julie, Rob, and Tyler have to say in their upcoming panel. Thank you.