Michelle Lee: Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and
Director of the USPTO

Michelle Lee was confirmed as Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO in March, 2015. Prior to that, she served as Deputy Director of the USPTO, Director of the USPTO’s Silicon Valley satellite office and Deputy General Counsel and Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google, respectively.
Michelle Lee was confirmed as Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO in March, 2015. Prior to that, she served as Deputy Director of the USPTO, Director of the USPTO’s Silicon Valley satellite office and Deputy General Counsel and Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google, respectively.

From Girl Scouts to Google and the USPTO, Shaping IP Education and Policy

The first woman to ever head the USPTO, a former computer scientist and an MIT graduate with an M.S. in electrical engineering and computer science, Michelle Lee began her IP journey in Silicon Valley, where ideas have been inspiring companies—and intellectual property protecting and giving value to those ideas—since the 1950s. She grew up surrounded by engineers and familiar with the critical role of patents in financing inventions. She also grew up as a Girl Scout, but wondered “where were the [Girl Scout] patches for inventors? Engineers? Scientists?”

Programs like the IP patch are designed to encourage students to engage in the process of turning their ideas into reality.

Inspired by such experiences to extend IP education and skills to groups like the Girl Scouts, today Director Lee and the USPTO, in conjunction with the IPO Education Foundation (IPOEF) and the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, are working to teach girls about STEM fields through the Girl Scout IP patch program. IPOEF is also working with the USPTO on a joint partnership to expand the reach of programs like the IP patch to other groups through increased advocacy.

Director Lee spoke with Innovator Insights about her journey to working in IP and how she, the USPTO and IPOEF are helping to ensure that other girls follow in her footsteps.

How were you first introduced to IP? 

I was born and raised in the Silicon Valley and spent most of my career there as part of its culture of innovation. When I was growing up, all of the dads on our street were engineers, and the idea that you would have an idea and build a company around it was the most natural-sounding thing to me—and still is, to this day. Patents allowed those engineers to obtain venture capital financing to take their inventions to the marketplace, so intellectual property has always been at the center of how I’ve experienced innovation in action.

How has your view of and relationship to IP changed over the years and throughout your career?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a career that has touched on our IP system from different angles. I started out as a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Artificial Intelligence Lab, and later, at Hewlett Packard Research Laboratories. After law school, I clerked for Judge Vaughn R. Walker, where I worked on the landmark Apple v. Microsoft copyright case, and for Judge Paul R. Michel on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears all appeals in patent cases. From there, I went on to practice as a lawyer in Silicon Valley, where I represented applicants and litigants, licensees and licensors, and then to Google, where I was the head of patent strategy of a rapidly growing organization.

So I’ve seen IP from the perspective of the inventor and the courts, and through the eyes of clients dealing with the entire range of intellectual property issues, and today I have the privilege to bring those perspectives to bear on the well-being of the entire IP system. As Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, I’m fortunate to approach IP not as an advocate of one client or the other, but as a steward charged with ensuring that our nation’s IP system continues to provide more and better paths for Americans to innovate and create jobs.

Why do you think it’s important to introduce kids to the tenets of IP rights, and how do you think we can best help them to truly grasp the concepts?

I share a deep commitment to education, especially when it comes to the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—and their role in the creation of intellectual property. We want young people to want to be innovators, and to learn not only that their ideas have value as intellectual property, but to respect the intellectual property of others. That’s why the USPTO recently redesigned our “KIDS!” web pages aimed to encourage students of all ages to learn about the importance of IP creation and protection. When kids have an opportunity to relate what they learn in school to how it impacts their lives and future careers, they get excited and energized about their education. Tapping into the passion and creativity that all children have is one of the main goals of the Office of Education and Outreach at the USPTO.

Why is it particularly important to target girls?

I take my role as the first woman to head the USPTO in our nation’s history very seriously.

As one of a few women in the fields of electrical engineering and computer science during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at MIT, and later in my time working with startups in Silicon Valley, I take my role as the first woman to head the USPTO in our nation’s history very seriously. If we are going to ensure that our nation has a dynamic economy, we can’t just stop at serving the needs of current innovators and entrepreneurs—we have to make sure that we are tapping into the innovative and entrepreneurial potential of people who aren’t currently a part of the system.

How is the Girl Scout IP patch program helping and how/ why is the USPTO involved in this project with the IPO Education Foundation? Why Girl Scouts specifically?

I grew up building radios and TV sets with my dad, and I kept wondering, where were the [Girl Scout] patches for inventors?

I was once a Girl Scout, and I remember the many patches we could earn for demonstrating skills like sewing and selling cookies. As the daughter of an engineer in Silicon Valley, I grew up building radios and TV sets with my dad, and I kept wondering, where were the patches for inventors? Engineers? Scientists? There weren’t any patches for the kinds of things I wanted to do.

Today, of course, there are many more patches Girl Scouts can earn for a variety of important skills, including this new intellectual property patch that we are really excited about. It was developed by a partnership of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation, and the USPTO, to demonstrate a better understanding of the impact that intellectual property has on technology and the economy.

Do you think programs like these can really help in the face of an explosion of “disruptive” technologies that make it so easy for consumers to control IP?

Absolutely. We believe that when students have a greater appreciation of their own creative process that they have a greater appreciation for the IP of others. Programs like the IP patch are designed to encourage students to engage in the process of turning their ideas into reality, essentially creating intellectual property as well as educating students on the responsibility of protecting and sharing their innovations.

It isn’t only kids who need education on IP—how else is the USPTO helping to counter “anti-IP sentiment” and educate the public about the importance of effective and efficient IP protection?

The USPTO is always working to encourage awareness of, and respect for, IP among the public. I think it is important to remind people that we are all not just consumers, but producers of intellectual property, and that IP awareness is not just about respecting the rights of others, but of understanding how IP protections can help you as an individual. For example, we have been working with the public to foster a better online licensing environment for copyrighted works, which will make it easier for businesses and individuals to receive compensation for their creative works.

We are doing a lot in this area, ranging from the programs of our Office of Education and Outreach (OEO) to provide resources to school administrators, teachers, students, and parents on STEM education with a focus on IP, to those of our Office of Innovation Development, which offers education, training, and special services for independent inventors, small businesses, and university affiliated inventors. Through partnerships, such as our partnership with the IPO Education Foundation, we work to extend the USPTO’s reach and create a robust education and outreach network that promotes a better understanding of the value of IP and innovation.

I also believe that our efforts to curtail abusive patent litigation will increase public confidence in our IP system by addressing the practices that have been the subject of so much public attention in recent years. By taking steps to increase claim clarity, to ensure that USPTO’s patent examination practices meet the highest quality standards, and to empower individuals and small businesses to better navigate the patent litigation process, we aren’t just improving the IP system’s image—we’re making for a better IP system overall.

The Girl Scout IP patch is part of the IPOEF’s Public Awareness program, in partnership with the USPTO and the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, to encourage girls to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers familiarizing them with the patent process and invention. To download the IP patch curriculum, to learn how to volunteer or to purchase the IP patch, click here

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