Obama Looking to Symantec CEO for Commerce

Word has started to circulate that President Barack Obama may be close to appointing John W. Thompson, the outgoing chief executive of network security firm Symantec Corp., to be the next Secretary of Commerce.  According to the LA Times, over the last several days Thompson has spoken on the telephone and met with key senators, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the commerce committee that would hold confirmation hearings for any appointed Secretary of Commerce, is “extremely supportive and hopeful he’ll be the nominee.”  The appointment of Thompson to head the Department of Commerce would be an exceptionally interesting choice given that only days ago President Obama asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to lead his open source charge and conduct a study and report back regarding the feasibility of the US government forgoing proprietary software and moving toward open source software solutions. 

Between November 16, 1993 and January 27, 2009, Symantec received 319 US Patents, on innovations relating to software, computer and network security, storage and systems management.  So the choice of Thompson to lead the Department of Commerce, the agency within which the United States Patent and Trademark Office sits, could be viewed as a good sign that President Obama is in favor of strong patent protection.  On the other hand, Symantec is a member of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, and it was the agenda of the Coalition for Patent Fairness to largely gut many of the fundamental components of the US patent system in favor of reforms that would enable tech-giants who already have strong market positions and patent portfolios to maintain their positions.  As I wrote at the end of 2008, in my opinion it is the Coalition for Patent Fairness that is to blamefor patent reform not happening in 2008.  Early on in the patent reform debate Silicon Valley was largely the only ones that the Patent Office and Congress were listening to, and the reforms that would help them would have crippled pharma, manufacturing and entrepreneurs in general. 

With Thompson at the head of the Department of Commerce it is impossible to predict what opinions are held by President Obama with respect to intellectual property rights.  We can predict that he is for strong enforcement of copyrights given that he has appointed one of the RIAA’s top attorneys to be the Deputy Attorney General.  We can also predict that President Obama is quite interested in embracing open source software, a move that I doubt would endear him to many companies and executives in Silicon Valley who have built companies based on strong and enforceable intellectual property rights.  But what does it mean that he is looking to Thompson to run one of the premiere agencies in the Federal government?  Would he pick Thompson to appease those who might be skeptical about his open source agenda? Would he pick Thompson because he is sympathetic to the desires of the Coalition for Patent Fairness?  Is Thompson the right guy for the job?  Does President Obama believe that software should be patented and wants someone in charge of the Patent Office who built a company based on proprietary software with strong patent rights?  Thus is the nature of speculation I suppose.  We just dont’ know.

Thompson is an accomplished executive who lead Symantec from a small software company to one of the most recognizable names in the software and security industry, and apparently a champion for entrepreneurs.  According to Craig Johnson,  an attorney and chief executive of Virtual Law Partners, Thompson is a “can-do” person, which would certainly be nice to have in government.  Johnson went on to say that “[h]aving someone like John in the inner circle of Obama’s Cabinet in Washington, D.C., would mean having someone represent the voice of the entrepreneur.”

About the Author

Eugene R. Quinn, Jr.
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
US Patent Attorney (Reg. No. 44,294)

B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Rutgers University
J.D., Franklin Pierce Law Center
L.L.M. in Intellectual Property, Franklin Pierce Law Center
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Gene is a US Patent Attorney, Law Professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He teaches patent bar review courses and is a member of the Board of Directors of the United Inventors Association. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, CNN Money and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide


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