In win for tech industry, White House nominates ex-Googler Michelle Lee to lead Patent Office

The Obama Administration on Thursday nominated Michelle Lee to be the new director of the Patent and Trademark Office, a position that has been vacant for more than a year and a half.

The choice of Lee, a former patent counsel for [company]Google[/company] who is the current Deputy Director of the USPTO, was praised by the legal community, including respected professor and blogger Dennis Crouch, and by groups representing Silicon Valley. Lee’s nomination comes after the White House pulled back on an earlier proposal to nominate an outspoken opponent of patent reform to be Director, a move that touched off a backlash from the tech industry.

Patents, which are supposed to promote innovation, have become a source of controversy in recent years as so-called “patent trolls” have gamed the system by acquiring old patents, and then shaking down entrepreneurs and productive companies with extortionate legal tactics. The trolls have made enormous amounts of money, even as innovative companies like Tesla have effectively renounced patents altogether.

The appointment of Lee, who has called trolls “a bug in our system,” could help alleviate the problem, especially after Senate Democrats killed an important patent reform bill this year at the behest of trolls and trial lawyers.

If Lee is confirmed by the Senate, she will have plenty of work to do.  The office has a backlog of more than 600,000 patent applications and is reeling from a scandal in which staff used a popular work-from-home program to bill for work they did not perform, and approved applications without proper scrutiny.

Lee, who is also a computer scientist with degrees from MIT and Stanford, has also led the USPTO’s satellite office in Silicon Valley. Although she has nominally been in charge of the Patent Office for a year, her formal appointment as director will provide her with increased political leverage to pull the office in new direction.