Updated 6:08 p.m.
The director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office announced today he will leave the position in January 2013 after more than three years implementing broad changes to the country's patent system.
David Kappos was widely respected among intellectual property lawyers for his grasp of issues regarding patents in the age of software and the internet, as well as his knowledge of how to implement change in a large organization like the patent office.
Kappos was also known for reducing the backlog of patent applications and worked hard to bring the best talent to the patent office, including reinvigorating the patent trial appeal board and the examining corps, said Michael Messinger, a partner at Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox and an adjunct professor for patent prosecution at George Mason University School of Law.
"He was one of our best commissioners in the [last] 30 years," Messinger said. "He really understood that we're in the knowledge economy and understood well the role of patents in promoting innovation in the U.S. economy."
Kappos led the office during a time when intellectual property was in flux, said Gary Hoffman, a partner at Dickstein Shapiro with more than 35 years of experience with IP issues. That meant implementing new decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and other appeals courts that weren’t always the easiest to understand, such as what constitutes a patentable idea.
"He was the best you could have" at implementing Supreme Court decisions, Hoffman said. "He probably did a better job trying than anybody else could have."
Kappos' main task over the last year was implementing the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which was signed in to law in September 2011 and is reshaping the U.S. patent system. Kappos received praise from one of the bill's authors, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
"He and his team have set the PTO on course to implement the key provisions of the Act, which will improve the patent system for decades to come," said Leahy. "Director Kappos's leadership of the PTO has been applauded by Democrats and Republicans, and by all sectors of the business community."
Not all of those provisions have been put into place yet, making this a critical time for direction at the PTO. "He’s launched it, it’s aimed very well," Messinger said. "The timing of his departure is going to make it even more important that we all look at making sure the implementation process keeps going with the quality standards that Kappos set."
Kappos also took on the backlog of patent applications, and was willing to engage the patent office unions and staff and look at the work flow processes that govern how examiners carry out their work, Messinger said.
Kappos, a lawyer since 1990 who also has a degree in electrical and computer engineering, has been working in the intellectual property field since then. Before joining the PTO, Kappos was vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at IBM, where he managed worldwide intellectual property operations, the PTO website states.
The White House did not immediately name a replacement for Kappos. Nor was it immediately clear what Kappos will be doing next. In October, The National Law Journal identified Kappos as one of a dozen government lawyers who are most likely to be sought after in the private sector.
Kappos could not be reached for comment, but made a statement through the patent office communications staff:
"I believe we have made great progress in reducing the patent backlog, increasing operational efficiency, and exerting leadership in IP policy domestically and internationally," Kappos said in a written statement. "Thanks to the entire USPTO staff for their dedication and hard work. I wish them the very best as they continue their efforts to support the U.S. economy by promoting and protecting innovation."
The PTO has cut the backlog of unexamined patents from over 750,000 to approximately 605,000, or 20 percent, despite an average increase of 5 percent in applications each year. It also reduced the amount of time that it takes to receive a first action on a patent application from 27 months to about 16 months.