How the next patent office director could shape the patent system

Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Georgia on April 29, 2021.

Enlarge / Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Georgia on April 29, 2021. (credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

In the next few weeks, President Joe Biden is expected to choose a new director for the US Patent and Trademark Office. In recent days, I’ve talked to a dozen people who are deeply involved in the patent system. During these conversations, three names came up over and over again as leading candidates.

One is patent lawyer Ellisen Turner. Over an 18-year career, Turner has represented a wide range of clients, from big tech companies to companies that do little more than collect patent licensing revenue. Included in this latter category is a firm that might sound familiar to long-time Ars readers: Intellectual Ventures. Back in 2014, my colleague Joe Mullin described Intellectual Ventures as the “world’s biggest troll.” Instead of developing products to sell to customers, Intellectual Ventures has mostly focused on accumulating a massive patent portfolio and then threatening to sue companies that refuse to license its patents.

Another leading candidate is Jannie Lau, a patent attorney who spent 11 years as the general counsel (and before that, associate general counsel) at InterDigital. This is another company that makes almost all its money from patent-licensing fees—97 percent in 2020. While some critics have labeled InterDigital a patent troll, a spokesman for the company told me that the label doesn’t fit. He said the firm employs hundreds of engineers who have helped to develop some key technical standards, especially in the wireless industry.

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