Former Google lawyer to lead Silicon Valley patent office

In what could be a big shake-up for America’s much maligned patent system, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has reportedly named lawyer Michelle K. Lee as the first head of its new Silicon Valley patent office.

The appointment is significant because Lee used to hold the title “Head of Patents and Patent Strategy” at Google, (s goog) where she issued a number of blog posts like this one calling for reform of the patent system.

Although the USPTO has yet to issue a formal announcement, Lee’s appointment was reported on Twitter by law professor Eric Goldman, who is well-respected on intellectual property issues:

[Update: Mike Masnick of Tech Dirt confirmed that a USPTO official announced the appointment at a patent event at the University of Santa Clara.]

The Silicon Valley patent office is one of several branch offices the USPTO established as part of a bid to pair specialized examiners with regional economies — high tech in San Jose, automotive in Detroit, energy in Dallas and aerospace in Denver. Lee may be hard pressed to recruit, however, given that pay for patent examiners is well below that offered at tech companies.

In recent years, patents have become a bugbear in Silicon Valley as a flood of low-quality patents has triggered a litigation arms race and given rise to a scourge of “trolls” — shell companies that don’t make anything but use the threat of lawsuits to extort licenses from companies that do.

Google and Twitter have been leading critics of the patent system while many experts have called for the reform or abolition of software patents.

The appointment has presumably been made at the behest of USPTO director David Kappos who has proved popular with both companies and the patent bar since he was appointed by President Obama in 2009.