U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Michelle Lee has resigned, administration sources confirm to POLITICO.
Lee, the former head of Google’s patent practice, was appointed by then-President Barack Obama in 2014 to head the office, the first woman to hold the post. She told POLITICO shortly after Donald Trump’s election in November that she was "open" to staying on during his presidency. Her status remained something of a mystery for months, but the Patent Office confirmed in mid-March that she would continue to serve as the director under Trump.
No reason was given for her resignation. While rumors had circulated that Lee was being considered for some other Trump administration post, perhaps as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Commerce Department didn’t announce a next step for her.
“We thank Michelle Lee for her service to her country and to the Department of Commerce," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an emailed statement. "As the first woman in our country’s history to serve as Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Michelle has worked tirelessly to serve our stakeholders and the American public. We wish her well in her next endeavor.”
USPTO spokesman Paul Fucito had no comment on who might serve as acting director.
Lee’s appointment by Obama — after a two-year vacancy in the post — was seen at the time as something of a coup for the technology industry, given her background at Google. There have long been tensions between Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry over the office’s handling of patents.
During his confirmation hearing in January to be Trump’s pick to head the Commerce Department, Ross praised aspects of Lee’s tenure, in particular her navigation of potential conflicts of interest with Google, her former employer of nearly a decade. By March, though, Ross was said to be interviewing replacement candidates.
The following month, a coalition of industry groups and tech companies — including Google, Facebook and Amazon — encouraged Trump to retain Lee as director. "We have been very pleased with the leadership of Director Lee, who has been committed to making sure that the USPTO creates the maximum economic benefit for American inventors and businesses," the letter read.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been active on intellectual property issues, said he hopes Lee’s replacement will continue her agenda.
“Michelle Lee has done an admirable job over the past two years guiding the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office," Hatch said in an emailed statement. "I look forward to working with the president to confirm a new USPTO Director who will build on Lee’s work and advance a pro-innovation agenda that will strengthen our nation’s position as the global technology leader."