Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.
Guest post by James Smith, Chief Administrative Patent Judge, United States Patent and Trademark Office
It is my privilege to serve as Chief Judge of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I was appointed to the position in May of 2011 by then Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. Prior to taking this position I served as the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for Baxter International, a Chicago-based healthcare company that develops medical devices and treatments for a wide range of human medical conditions. At the company, I led the part of its operations concerned with its patent, trademark and copyright matters. In the current role at the Board, I am part of – actually lead -- a 300-person team, which includes about 170 administrative patent judges who hear appeals from decisions in which the USPTO denies patent rights to applicants. The Board also hears trials which resolve disputes between patent owners and other parties seeking to have patents revoked. All of our cases bring some element of closure to outstanding patent legal issues, thus helping advance the use and protection of inventions in the United States. Our mission is squarely centered on helping innovative businesses bring about an America with great well-being for all.
For me, taking the position at the USPTO allowed me to return to Washington, DC, after being away for more than 20 years. I grew up in DC, and was a big beneficiary of the many educational things it had to offer, such as its historical sites, museums and wonderful cultural offerings. My parents, who taught in the area schools for decades, made regular use of Washington’s cultural richness in their wider instruction of all three of their children. They were big proponents of education, and always insistent that their children learn and appreciate history, including by knowing of the substantial contributions of African-American citizens to the development of our country.
Throughout our school days, my parents kept nearby and available for their children a book entitled “Great Negroes Past and Present” in which about 200 short biographies of significant people were presented. My parents had us study the book on an on-going basis to learn about the people in it, but they also emphasized to us that history often is moved along by many courageous people whose names are never mentioned in any book. I take every opportunity that presents itself to pass on wonderful aspects of that type of history to all who are willing to hear of it and be inspired by it. Fortunately, life has allowed me wide scope for sharing; I do so in places from my local church to gatherings of alumni from Duke Law School in Durham, North Carolina.
I attended a Seventh-Day Adventist high school in the area and also attended engineering school locally, at the University of Maryland in College Park. It was after earning a degree in electrical engineering, and working briefly as a Patent Examiner, that I attended law school at Duke. After that, I returned to work in DC. I served as a judicial law clerk for Judge Paul R. Michel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in DC before accepting a position to practice law in Texas. In my many years away from DC, I worked in IP law, primarily litigating patent cases in private practice, but also serving as Dean of Students at Emory Law School in Atlanta, Georgia, and serving in various legal and business roles inside three companies.
Often, as I look across the Potomac River from my 9th-floor office on its Virginia side, I think about the laborers who moved earth, stone and wood to build DC. Denied the privileges of full citizenship, they nonetheless caused a now great city to rise from what was a swamp. For me, it is impossible for a day to pass without giving thought to their contributions and lack of reward, and without being motivated -- with such God-given talents as I may have -- to perform as well as I reasonably can in my job. I have the unimaginable-to-them privilege of a leadership position at the Board, the extraordinary circumstance of working with fabulously able colleagues, and the joy of a mission squarely centered on innovation and the living condition of people in this and other countries. Especially in February, I just lift my voice and sing, confident that it is possible for earth and heaven to “ring with the harmonies of liberty.” It is up to us to continue trying to make it so with our own additional contributions to the collective history.