Assessing USPTO Director Andrei Iancu’s tenure, part I

Yesterday, with the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States, Andrei Iancu, the director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) since February 2018, logged his last official day on the job.

USPTO Director and Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property Andrei Iancu (right) signs an agreement with Juan Lozano, General Director of Mexico’s Institute of Industrial Property in Mexico City, Mexico, January 28, 2020, via Reuters

Traditionally, like the heads of numerous executive branch
agencies, the USTPO director — who since 1999 has also held the title of Under
Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property — tenders his or her
resignation the day a newly elected (or reelected) president takes office.

In the PTO’s case, this practice has been the norm for decades; the last director to helm the agency for longer than four years was Bruce Lehman, who served in the 1990s, and the most recent director to outlast the president who appointed him was Donald Quigg, whose tenure in the 1980s straddled the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations.

With Iancu returning to the private sector, it is an opportune time to reflect on his tenure at the apex of the office. Iancu took the time to participate in a lengthy interview that covered a variety of substantive and procedural developments at the USPTO during his tenure, and we will examine each area of patent and trademark law and policy we discussed in the coming weeks.

Overall, Iancu (an AEI keynote speaker in 2018) has accomplished a great deal
during his directorship, presiding over improvements in the patent eligibility
regime, enhancements to Patent Trial and Appeal Board procedures and
regulations, a reduction in the pendency of patent applications and appeals, an
exploration of computer-generated inventions, and the promotion of trademark

Iancu told me his broad goal at the PTO was to “change the
dialogue surrounding intellectual property [(IP)] so that the national dialogue
on IP is now focused on the brilliance of inventors, the incredible benefits of
innovation, and the very important role intellectual property plays to spur
innovation.” Like his predecessors, Iancu regards the American IP system as the
chief engine of American success.

But more specifically, he believes, “At the highest of high levels, intellectual property is a source of economic growth, job creation, [and] the creation of better jobs for the facilitation of international trade and the betterment of the human condition.”

To that end, the USPTO under his leadership established
the National Council for Expanding American Innovation (NCEAI),
which aims to develop “new ways to expand American innovation by tapping into
the strength of our nation’s diversity and increasing the opportunities
for all Americans to participate in innovation,” especially “women and
other underrepresented groups.”

The NCEAI, a product of the 2018 Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success Act (which we explored last year), builds on a study presented to Congress by the PTO in late 2019 which found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “women and minorities are underrepresented as inventors named on U.S. granted patents.” Iancu notes that the NCEAI seeks to “make sure that government, industry, academia, and nonprofits work together in a consistent and focused manner to enable this expansion of the innovation economy.”

Given the “invention gap” that Michigan State University’s Lisa Cook has documented — and the civil unrest that roiled the country last summer — the advent of the NCEAI couldn’t come at a better time. Iancu describes the council as “something I probably am most proud of” and “one of the most important initiatives for the United States economy going forward.”

A key part of Iancu’s legacy, to be sure; we will explore
others in our next post.

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