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What does USPTO's Michelle Lee's resignation mean for patent law?

Michelle Lee, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2014, abruptly announced her resignation on Tuesday. Lee, the first woman to hold the post of director, first joined the agency in 2012. She was then named interim director and ultimately confirmed for the top position under the Obama Administration.

The USPTO comes under the auspices of the Commerce Department, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross praised Lee in a statement earlier this week. "Michelle has worked tirelessly to serve our stakeholders and the American public. We wish her well in her next endeavor."

The technology industry was elated by her appointment, particularly because she came to the USPTO from a position as in-house counsel for Google. According to Politico, the tech sector and the pharmaceutical industry have long had differing opinions about how the agency handles patents. The USPTO provides a searchable patent database, reviews, approves, denies and cancels patents and trademarks.

During her tenure, Lee gained a good reputation for working against patent trolling. This may be what Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) meant when he praised Lee's "pro-innovation agenda" in a statement after her resignation.

Patent trolls typically buy patents that appear to broadly encompass features of other patents. Armed with these unduly broad patents, the trolls then file lawsuits against the owners of allegedly competing technology. This is often done in hopes of a quick, relatively cheap settlement without a fight. While settlement often does cost less than litigation, patent trolling doesn't serve any greater social interest, including the protection of intellectual property.

Lee's reputation was positive enough that companies including Google, Facebook, Cisco Systems and Amazon wrote a letter to President Trump encouraging him to keep her on as director. He agreed and officially left her in place earlier this year.

Her announcement came as a surprise to observers, as the Trump Administration had only spoken of her removal in terms of transferring her to another vital post. A USPTO spokesperson declined to comment on a replacement, even on an interim basis. No one else has been suggested for the post, which requires Senate confirmation.

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