Lawyer Andrei Iancu confirmed to lead U.S. patent office

(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed lawyer Andrei Iancu as the next head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, clearing the way for him to lead an agency tasked with deciding who owns the rights to inventions in areas like software, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices.

The Senate voted 94-0 to confirm Iancu, 49, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in August.

The position has become a political flashpoint in recent years.

Silicon Valley firms like Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc have urged the agency to review applications more carefully, saying in the past it granted too many dubious patents that lead to nuisance lawsuits.

But pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer Inc and Johnson & Johnson have urged caution in reforming the patent system, saying strong intellectual property rights are crucial to innovation.

Iancu is regarded as a “consensus pick” who will balance the rights of patent owners with the concerns of large technology companies often accused of infringement, said Robert Stoll, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath and former patent office official.

As patent office director, Iancu will manage a staff of about 8,000 patent examiners that grants patent protection to more than 300,000 inventions each year.

The agency also issues trademark registrations that allow companies to protect their brand names and logos from counterfeiting.

Iancu will also oversee the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, an administrative court created in 2011 that has the power to invalidate patents.

Iancu will succeed interim director Joseph Matal, who took over from Michelle Lee, a former patent lawyer at Google nominated by President Barack Obama to the position in 2014. Lee resigned in June 2017 following months of uncertainty about whether Trump would keep her in the position.

Lee had enjoyed strong support from the technology industry. Google, Facebook, Cisco Systems Inc, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and other technology companies wrote a letter to Trump in April 2017 urging him to keep her in the position.

Iancu comes to the patent office from Irell & Manella, a Los Angeles-based law firm, where his clients have included digital video recording pioneer TiVo Corp and gene-testing company Ariosa Diagnostics Inc, a division of Roche Holdings AG.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Tom Brown