I recognize that many (especially regular Techdirt readers) will assume from the title above that the question is a rhetorical one in response to the latest craziness around a stupid trademark or awful patent. But, no, we mean that literally. You see, right before the Trump inauguration, it was widely reported that Michelle Lee would stay on as the Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office. That was undeniably good news. For all the complaints we have about the USPTO, Lee has done a fairly amazing job running that office, and seems to be one of the first Patent Office directors who actually understands how patents can do serious harm to innovation. Keeping her on would be a really good sign. After seeing the stories claiming that she was staying, we'd mostly moved on. However, Politico reporter Nancy Scola sent me down something of a rabbit hole after tweeting that it's basically impossible to know who's in charge of the Patent Office right now.
The USPTO's site still says it's Lee:
That seems like that should be that. However, there are conspiracy theories afoot -- mainly being discussed by Gene Quinn over at IP Watchdog. Gene and I disagree about basically everything as it relates to patents, and he's got a history of insulting me, so I have every reason to basically ignore him. But, on this, he may have a point. And the questions about whether or not Lee is actually in charge are also being asked by a much more respectable patent website, Patently-O.
The issue started when Quinn noticed that, despite the claims that Lee was staying on, the Commerce Department (which the USPTO is a part of) leadership page says the role is "vacant." Here's the latest screenshot I took:
As for the PTO's own website, Quinn rightly points out that its leadership page still lists out a number of other individuals who have announced resignations and are no longer there, but whose profiles are still on the website. The Commerce Department seems to be refusing to comment to anyone who asks (I've sent in my own question) and it's quite unclear if Michelle Lee really is the director.
If you look through the fairly long list of articles by Quinn on the subject, it's quite clear that he (as someone who is not a fan of Lee) is hoping that she's been pushed out, and is trying to drum up controversy over the possibility that she might remain. But the lack of any clarity from anyone... is bizarre. Quinn's most recent post on the subject notes that while no one seems willing to say who's running things, Lee "continues to be seen" in the building. That would certainly support the theory that she's staying. But... she's also cancelled a bunch of speaking engagements, and no one at the USPTO or Commerce Dept. seems willing to say anything. Also, in an earlier report, Quinn noted that he'd been told, unofficially, that Drew Hirshfeld is "Acting Director," implying Lee had left. But the whole thing seems to be... unclear:
Who is running the United States Patent and Trademark Office? That straightforward question shouldn’t be imponderable, but it seems that the Trump Administration has chosen to sequester the Director as if he or she has gone into the witness protection program. Indeed, we seem no closer to an answer to who is running the USPTO today than we were 18 days ago. Although sources tell me that Michelle Lee continues to be seen on the 10th floor of the Madison Building, which is where the Director’s Office is located.
As we begin the third week of the Trump Administration I cannot tell you with any definitive certainty who is Director, or if there is an Acting Director, or if the Commissioner for Patents is merely carrying out the responsibilities of Director without being named Acting Director, which has been the case at least once in the past.
Yes, the Trump transition has been a bit of a mess, but this seems particularly bizarre. There's a decent chance that the problem is just that something is afoot and it just hasn't been discussed publicly yet, so the Commerce Dept. and PTO are staying silent. But, as Quinn notes, there are actual, real implications of not having anyone as PTO director:
Indeed, there are many things that the law leaves to the discretion of the Director of the USPTO. While some of those decisions have been delegated out to subordinate officials within the Office, some do still remain only with the Director. For example, if you are a patent owner who believes you are being harassed by repeated post grant challenges the Director alone has the authority to provide a protective remedy. Without knowing who is Director how can patent owners appropriately seek to obtain the assistance of the Director?
Another thing that will soon become problematic is with respect to lawsuits involving the USPTO. Who should be the named party? Generally, the Director or Acting Director of the agency is named as the party on behalf of the agency. While it seems a small point, properly identifying the party is no minor matter in federal court. Are patent applicants supposed to style their appeals to the Federal Circuit as Applicant v. John or Jane Doe, Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?
In his most recent post, Quinn further wonders if those of us who tend to think certain patents shouldn't have been issued could even use this as a way to claim patents issued recently are invalid:
Sources tell me that the USPTO was prepared last week to issue patents with the signature of Drew Hirshfeld, who is the Commissioner of Patents and seems to be currently in the position of Acting Director. At the last minute, however, a decision was made to reverted back to Michelle Lee’s signature. This creates several significant problems.
First, if Lee is not currently the Director patents that are being issued with her signature are being issued in violation of §153. If we know anything about patent litigators it is that they raise every challenge possible, and it is only a matter of time before the provenance of patents issued during these first weeks and months of the Trump Administration are challenged as being invalid.
These are not unsolvable issues, once things are clarified, but it still... very, very strange. I doubt that challenging the validity of the patents would have much of a chance, but it is interesting. And while I desperately hope that Lee remains, and Quinn desperately hopes that she is forced out, I think (for once!) Quinn and I agree: whatever is happening, and whoever is in charge, should be disclosed publicly.