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After Backlash, Rumors About Patent Office Pick Cool Down

When unconfirmed reports began swirling that a foe of patent reform would be nominated to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the tech industry and reform-minded senators voiced their opposition. The pushback led the Obama administration to publicly deny the rumors.

The tech industry’s battle to pass patent reform legislation may have hit a roadblock in Congress, but industry groups still have plenty of clout in Washington.

That influence was on display last week when, in response to vocal opposition from tech associations that back patent reform, the Obama administration publicly denied reports that Philip Johnson, the head of intellectual property policy at Johnson & Johnson, was going to be tapped to become the new director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The problem? Many see Johnson as a key opponent of patent reform. As Ars Technica notes, Johnson became a vocal critic of reform after the House passed the Innovation Act and the Senate took up its own patent reform bill. Johnson & Johnson signed an Innovation Alliance letter, sent to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that claimed that “many of the provisions assume that every patent holder is a patent troll.”

This was a stance that Johnson himself, who represented the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, had been pushing for months.

“While troll abuse is a problem that should be addressed, it is critical that Congress not do so at the expense of the vast majority of innovation stakeholders for whom the patent system is working,” Johnson said in prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee [PDF] in December.

Leahy ultimately shelved the patent reform bill after it became clear that the sides wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement on how best to deal with that issue.

Tough Words

Rumors of Johnson’s potential nomination, first reported by National Journal, spread quickly, leading trade groups and pro-reform lawmakers to speak out.

“That the administration might consider appointing an active opponent of reform efforts is stunning,” said Ed Black, the president and CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, in a statement. “Such a move could undermine the public’s perception of the administration’s commitment to addressing the anti-innovation aspects of our patent system, especially as it relates to the tech industry.”

“American business owners remain vulnerable to patent troll lawsuits, and now one of the most prominent opponents of reform has been appointed to be the umpire, calling balls and strikes for USPTO,” Main Street Patent Coalition Manager Michael Meehan said in a statement of his own [PDF].

And two leaders in the legislative push for patent reform, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and John Cornyn (R-TX), both raised concerns. Schumer said that if Johnson were nominated, he would vote against confirmation.

Just Speculation?

In the end last week, the Obama administration denied it had decided to name Johnson, saying that the reports, based on unnamed sources, were inaccurate and that nothing was official.

“There had been speculation about who the administration would nominate to be the next director of the PTO,” an official told The Hill. “However, no name was ever put forward.”

But that statement didn’t put the matter to rest. Last week, National Journal noted that insiders were skeptical about whether a Johnson nomination was really off the table.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was among the critics of the proposed patent office pick. (photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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