White House pulls plug on controversial Patent Office nominee after tech sector backlash

Patent Office

The Obama Administration has changed its mind over a plan to name pharmaceutical executive Phil Johnson as head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to multiple sources. The reversal is a victory for the technology industry and other proponents of patent reform.

The plan to appoint Johnson surfaced in late June, and was met with outrage on social media, where critics claimed the choice reflected hypocrisy on the part of President Obama, who had called for fixes to the patent system in his January State of the Union address.

Johnson, a longtime attorney for Johnson & Johnson, was a controversial nominee in part because he helped lead opposition to a bipartisan bill, which died in May, that would have made it easier for companies to challenge bad patents and to seek legal fees from so-called “patent trolls.” He has also publicly scorned previous attempts to reform the patent system.

News of the White House’s decision to backtrack on the appointment came via a person close to the Administration, and was confirmed by several industry sources. The final decision to pull the plug may have occurred after Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) vocally declared his opposition to Johnson. Schumer, who was one of the authors of the failed reform bill, has regularly blasted the harm the current patent system is inflicting on start-ups and young companies.

For now, it’s unclear who the White House will name instead of Johnson. The office of Director of the Patent Office has been vacant since out-going director David Kappos stepped down in early 2013, and has been led in the meantime by former Googler, Michelle Lee. Lee would appear to be a logical choice to take the top job, but it’s not apparent that she’s in the running. One source speculated that the Administration could appoint a figurehead, which would let Lee continue to be the de facto leader on policy issues. The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

When the incoming Director is appointed, she or he will confront a large backlog of unprocessed patent applications, and will also have to decide how to address the issue of patent quality. In the last two decades, the Patent Office has issued a flood of questionable patents like one issued to a child for “swinging on a swing.” The proliferation of patents has arisen in part because examiners can only expend a given amount of time on each application, while those seeking patents can repeatedly challenge rejections.


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