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US patent office chief Michelle Lee steps down

Lee's resignation comes after months of mystery over her status in the Trump administration.


Michelle K. Lee, the director of the US Patent and Trade Office, has resigned.

Laura Hautala/CNET

Michelle Lee, the head of the US government's patent office, resigned her position Tuesday, ending months of speculation about whether she would continue serving under President Donald Trump.

Lee was appointed to lead the Patent and Trademark Office in 2014 by President Barack Obama. No reason was given for her resignation.

The Commerce Department confirmed Lee's departure in a statement.

"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."

Lee, the former head of patents and patent strategy at Google, was considered sympathetic to the concerns of the tech industry. Lee was particularly critical of the ease with which patent trolls have been able to file patent lawsuits. She said the system was set up so that "the temptations and opportunities for abuse have gotten too high," allowing attorneys and plaintiffs to rake in big paydays.

But her status after President Donald Trump's election had been in doubt. Observers had speculated early during Trump's administration that Lee might be replaced, but the office confirmed in mid-March that she would continue to serve as director.

But the statement was far from a firm vote of confidence for Lee. A group of trade associations and technological companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google signed a letter addressed to Trump publicly supporting Lee.

"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 companies wrote in their letter (PDF).

"We believe that the American economy would greatly benefit from her continued leadership, or the leadership of a USPTO director committed to the priorities she has instituted and championed," they wrote.

First published June 6, 4:51 p.m. PT.
Update, June 7 at 8:30 a.m.:
 Adds Commerce Department comment.

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