A Conversation with IPO President Kevin Rhodes and IPO Executive Director Mark Lauroesch

rhodes-captionLeading IPO via Engagement, Education, and Internationalization

This year marks a new era for IPO, with two new leaders at the helm. Executive Director Mark Lauroesch, who came on board in October of 2015, and President Kevin Rhodes, Chief Intellectual Property Counsel at 3M Innovative Properties Co., each have a vision for the Association that includes expanding IPO’s scope beyond U.S. borders; engaging actively with the public, members, and policymakers; and taking a bigger part in an IP conversation that has become steadily louder and more widespread over the past several decades.

Neither Mr. Rhodes nor Mr. Lauroesch initially envisioned themselves as patent lawyers—Mr. Rhodes began his career as a chemist and Mr. Lauroesch started out as an engineer in the defense industry—but each was drawn to the intellectual, technical, and complex nature of patent and intellectual property law. Having started their IP careers around the same time, they also have similar insights into how and why the IP landscape has changed so much over the last two decades and how IPO members can better engage and negotiate with the public, judiciary, and policymakers on issues that are crucial to IP owners.

Innovator Insights sat down with Mr. Lauroesch and Mr. Rhodes to talk about their respective paths to IP, what they will focus on during their terms as leaders, and why IPO’s and IPOEF’s agendas are important even for those outside of the IP stakeholder community.

lauroesch-captionHow did you each become interested in IP, and what has kept you interested?

Kevin Rhodes (KR): I got into the IP world on the client side. Right out of college, I was working as a chemist for a contact lens manufacturer, and right about the time I joined the company they became involved in a patent infringement lawsuit. Their patent attorneys had to come out to the lab to do some testing of products, and being the new guy, they assigned me to work with them. I didn’t know anything about patent law or patents before then, and in working with them I became fascinated by the intersection of technology and law and the intellectual challenges that presented. From there, it was on to law school and the series of events that brought me to 3M. I had never thought about law school before that; I had been thinking I’d go to chemistry graduate school, but, for one thing, I realized I wasn’t a very good chemist, and secondly, this lawsuit where I started working on the legal aspects caught my interest. So I took the LSAT almost on a whim. So becoming a patent lawyer was never part of a grand plan, but I’ve certainly found it to be really interesting, challenging and satisfying.

What’s kept me interested is that intellectual challenge and all that entails in terms of such a rapidly evolving technology space and how the law has to work to keep up with it and adapt and change. But in combination with that, there’s also the sense of doing something worthwhile and helping to promote innovation and new inventions that improve people’s lives every day. That’s one of the more rewarding aspects of being in the profession.

Mark Lauroesch (ML): I put my wife through law school and business school being an engineer. I worked in the defense industry on all top-secret work, so for our dinner table conversations I couldn’t say anything about what I was doing, but I could hear all about what my wife was doing in law school. That sort of sparked an interest for me, and I ended up going to law school. I was thinking of products liability practice because I had a technical background in material failure analysis and I did an internship my first summer after starting law school in a products liability firm. I wasn’t very happy with it; they weren’t very interested in the technical facts at all, and I’d happened to take some patent law courses and really enjoyed those. Like Kevin, I liked the connection between the patent law and technology and innovation, as well as the complexity of that area of law.

“Strong engagement by the Association on issues of IP law and policy is foremost on my agenda.” – Kevin Rhodes

What kept me interested was the fact that it allowed me to work with a wide range of technology. If I’d remained a technologist, I would have likely had to specialize in one area of technology for my whole career. I also liked the breadth of experiences IP law brought—you get to work with lawyers, judges, business people, technologists, policy makers, etc. That’s very interesting. The other aspect of it that I never realized I’d encounter was that, because of the global economy and the importance of IP worldwide, I’d have the opportunity to work with a lot of different cultures across a range of countries, which I have very much enjoyed. Also, along the lines of what Kevin said, I found it fun and interesting, and I do find it very gratifying to be part of a system that helps to drive innovation that improves people’s lives.

How do you think the IP landscape has most changed during the course of your careers?

ML: I graduated law school in 1989, and three big changes since then come to mind. The first is that the number of lawyers practicing IP law has really grown. When I first started, the patent bar was a really small, clubby community. But I think the lucrativeness of IP law has attracted a lot of lawyers to the profession. That’s brought some positive and negative changes. With more lawyers there’s been more creativity. In some respects that’s led to abuses of the IP system, and in other cases it’s brought a lot more strategic thinking and better visibility to IP law.

The engagement of Congress and the Supreme Court has also very much increased, again with both some negative and positive consequences. When I first started practicing, the Supreme Court took no cases and the Federal Circuit was the court of last resort. Most members of Congress didn’t even know what intellectual property was then. With the interest now from those two bodies, certainly there’s been more opportunity to change the law and improve the IP system, but I think it still continues to result in upsetting our complex IP ecosystem, since flexible jurisprudence can be at odds with the predictable legal outcomes that businesses really like.

The last change, which I really enjoy, is that IP has become much more global. That has helped to transfer technology to other developed countries and to drive innovation in developing countries, which has improved the prosperity of those developing countries. I think that’s a good thing.

“We want to try to avoid solutions that help one industry to the detriment of other industries.” – Mark Lauroesch

KR: I graduated law school in 1991, and from my perspective, I’ve seen two big mega-trends, both of which Mark touched on. The first is the increased profile of IP and IP law. In large part, I think that is a function of the growth in value of intangible assets as an asset class and IP being a central component of those assets. As the value and appreciation for IP have increased, you’ve seen increasing engagement in all those areas Mark mentioned. The profession has grown, the Supreme Court has become much more interested in IP law, Congress of course is interested, and in corporate America, boardrooms across the country are talking about IP as an important asset class. I think a lot of that has led to a greater public interest and awareness, as the profile has increased. That’s been a pretty consistent trend since I started practicing.

The other trend is globalization. Since I started practicing, the world has become a lot smaller. At first, most of the issues I worked on were U.S. focused, but everything seems to be connected now; almost every issue I deal with on a daily basis has global implications. We can never look at an issue or an element of IP strategy solely with a U.S. focus—it’s all global at this point.

With those trends in mind, what will be your main policy focuses for the Association in the coming year?

“The reasons we shouldn’t take people’s intangible property are not as ingrained in people’s understanding.” – Mark Lauroesch

KR: I think strong engagement by the Association on those issues is going to be foremost. We want to provide the perspective of the patent owning community, not limited to a subset of industry segments, but, rather, broad-based perspectives from a variety of different voices and industry segments. IPO is in a unique position to add that voice. Strong engagement with the membership and staff is essential to make sure that, as law and policy evolve in the patent world, we strike the right balance and create the right mix to accomplish a pro-innovation agenda. That’s number one, two, and three on the list for me.

Beyond that, there are other issues we’re going to keep on top of, such as the global impact of IP changes around the world and making sure that we shape and influence those as we can to try to achieve both harmonization and good policy in our trading partners and other countries. There are other important issues, such as full funding of the USPTO, that we want to remain on top of; as well as helping to pass the Defend Trade Secrets Act in the U.S. That bill is very important to a number of our members, including 3M and me, so we want to see if we can keep the momentum going toward its enactment. And of course, there are issues with copyrights and trademarks and a host of issues we can’t even anticipate at this point, so remaining engaged with Congress, the courts and the Administration is going to be at the top of my agenda.

ML: My priorities have to be at the call of the Board of Directors and Kevin, but I have views on how to address those priorities. With respect to the advocacy aspects, I’m trying to reinforce that we need to have some better thinking around solutions to problems with our IP systems. We want to try to avoid solutions that help one industry to the detriment of other industries. Kevin alluded to the same thing in a different way—I think we need to encourage innovation for all industries and also curb abuses of our system. For me, that’s trying to encourage the dialogue among our members earlier to find a better solution, before people start running up to the Hill and getting entrenched with bad policy that could be detrimental to the IP system as a whole.

Kevin also alluded to this, but I think it’s a priority for IPO to grow its international footprint. The vast majority of our members have growing global markets, and therefore the importance of worldwide IP rights is critical. Each country has different laws and regulations and different approaches as to how change in the law is influenced, and IPO needs to be working to better understand those avenues so that we can help improve those systems around the world for our members.

“What we see in the media is a byproduct of IP being such a pervasive issue across our economy that touches people in so many different ways.” – Kevin Rhodes

Despite the fact that IP helps to drive innovation, as you both mentioned earlier, there has been increased criticism of the IP system by mainstream media and the public over the last few decades. Why do you think that is?

KR: I think it’s a product of the fact that these issues are so complex and they touch so many parts of our economy. Different businesses and business models have different perspectives that come into play. What you see I think in terms of different takes on IP in the mainstream media just reflects those different voices and perspectives that weigh in on those issues. Within industry, for example, those come from different business models that might have different approaches to IP and how it can help further those business models. Those varying views also come from different participants in the system, such as sole inventors, university inventors, and corporate inventors. Any one media portrayal of IP is written from a particular perspective, so that tends to augment differences in views. What I think we can do as an organization that reflects a lot of those different constituencies and interests is to bring it back to more of a broad perspective. The organization is maintained and founded by members who are IP owners who believe in the value of IP. They may disagree on some of the specific tactics and policies and balance that needs to be struck, but that should be a product of discussions and compromise and the attempt to reach common ground based on that uniform view that a well-functioning IP system is crucial to American innovation and global innovation.

ML: It’s an interesting question that I know a lot of people in the IP world think about from time to time. I agree with the fact Kevin touched on, that IP means different things to different industries, so certain aspects are more important to them and that shapes the flavor of statements being made. But getting a little bit more philosophical, and with respect to the mission of the IPOEF, some of that disconnect also has to do with the psychological or educational aspects of how people understand tangible versus intangible property rights. All of us, even as children, learned quickly that you can’t take other people’s physical possessions. Kids know that’s wrong. But the reasons we shouldn’t take people’s intangible property are not as ingrained in people’s understanding, and that is one of the missions of the IPOEF—to foster a better understanding about that and to help people appreciate the connection between granting those intangible property rights and how that incentivizes innovation.

KR: The IP Video Contest is a great example of that. We pose these questions to kids and young adults about why patents are important, and they immediately come back to this notion of creation and the moral rights associated with the creation of your own property based on ideas. I think, intuitively, people appreciate and understand that, and I think there’s widespread agreement on that point, but how it translates in the media coverage is the challenge sometimes. As you know, the media’s always telling a story. So if the story you’re telling is about a startup company who was sued for patent infringement, the story is probably going to be about how outrageous that is. If it’s a story about a small inventor who made it big, it’s going to be about how wonderful patents are and how they’re the ticket to the great American success story. So, what we see in the media is a byproduct of IP being such a pervasive issue across our economy that touches people in so many different ways—it all depends on how you’re telling the story based on a particular circumstance or set of facts. We’re also living in an age where there has been a huge increase in the amount of information and media available on every issue. Never before have there been so many pathways for people to tell their stories publicly to a large audience, whether through social media, blogs, or other on-line pathways. So anyone can tell a story about his or her experience with the IP system, and those experiences may vary widely.

Mark, are there other plans or programs through which IPOEF can address this disconnect?

ML: We’re certainly thinking about getting out more in the popular press with some of this story. As Kevin is pointing out, everyone can put their spin on the story, so maybe we have to get our own perspective out there to give the bigger picture point of view about IP, rather than looking at one situation and taking one perspective.

How would you say IPO’s and IPOEF’s goals and policy efforts affect average consumers and people outside of the IP realm?

ML: It’s pretty fundamental that our IP systems encourage and reward innovation. That brings new technology to society and the general public. Inventions come in the form of better health and safety, as well as products that just make people’s lives more comfortable and enjoyable. IP is really fundamental to those innovations being achieved.

KR: I think that’s very well said; innovation is the linchpin of our economic success and prosperity, and certainly having the right IP policies in place is essential to incent and reward that innovation. Ultimately, our economic growth and prosperity hinges on getting those policies right, and that comes down to what Mark said about having an IP system that works for all industries and advances the goals of all industries. I think we can work as an organization through some of the differing views, because we have those views within our membership ranks, so we can work to find common ground and to advance a unified agenda that will help to strike the right balance.