Exclusive Interview: USPTO Chief of Staff Peter Pappas

Peter Pappas is an attorney who served in the Clinton White House Counsel’s office and who held important communications, government relations and policy positions at the State Department and at the FCC in the last Democratic Administration. After serving as a broadcasting executive overseeing legal, regulatory and government affairs and corporate communications, he was appointed by David Kappos to serve as Senior Advisor and Chief Communications Officer when Kappos took office. Although he is not a patent attorney, Pappas has quickly become an important and influential player in the patent community. He is now David Kappos’ Chief of Staff, a position he assumed last Fall, and a top advisor. His area of expertise is in politics, government and public relations. On January 24, 2012, I sat down with Peter Pappas to go on the record.

While there is no doubt that the rejuvenation of the Patent Office during the Obama Administration is directly related to the capable and steady leadership of Director Kappos, I equally have no doubt that Pappas has played a major role in reshaping the public image of the USPTO. During the Bush Administration there was a feeling that the patent bar was the enemy, not to be trusted. The flow of information from the USPTO to the industry and public was largely non-existent. That has all changed and Pappas has been at the center of coordinating the USPTO with other government agencies and in coordinating the message so that the industry and public can know and understand what the USPTO is doing and why.

When I interviewed Director Kappos on December 22, 2011, here is what he had to say about Pappas:

Peter is for me a trusted confidant and key advisor. You need a chief of staff who can come in and tell you you’re wrong sometimes, or can come in and point out a blind spot. And Peter does all of those things. He has great instincts and knows how to cut through the clutter and get things done. And Peter also had tremendous political acumen on the Hill, in DOC, in the Administration. He’s been around Washington — in both the private sector and government; he’s got a lot of friends around town.

You know, we’re operating in a political environment. This is no longer the PTO of yesteryear. The USPTO now has a bright light shining on us. We’ve got this big legislation done. We’ve gotten a lot of money given to us. We’re getting some real traction on some things. And that causes the bright light of the political arena to shine on you and you’ve got to be prepared to deal with that in a business-like and strategic way. Peter’s the guy who helps navigate the intersection of policy and strategy and who develops our message. He is extremely effective downtown at representing the interests of the entire IP community, and particularly the USPTO. You need someone like that who can be in there dealing with and managing all those issues. He’s been a big asset to me and to this Agency.

I first came to know Peter when he joined the USPTO as the Chief Communications Officer at the beginning for the Kappos Administration, and I continually bump into him at the USPTO and numerous patent venues and events around town. Thus, I have known Peter for several years. I like Peter a lot, which will likely come through in the interview, so I plead guilty as charged here and now (just in case anyone wants to cry bias).  Peter is smart and has a great sense of humor; I always enjoy our conversations, and I hope you will as well.

Without further ado, here is my interview with USPTO Chief of Staff, Peter Pappas. For the rest of my latest interviews with USPTO senior management please visit USPTO 2.0.

QUINN: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with me today. I appreciate it.

PAPPAS: Sure. Always good to see you, Gene.

QUINN: As you know, I have wanted to sit down and chat with you on the record for a while. And the opportunity presents itself now because you have taken on a new role fairly recently as Chief of Staff. I would like to talk to you about that and, if we can, spend some time talking about your experiences in government more generally because I know that you also served in the Clinton administration.

So, let’s start with your role as Chief of Staff at the USPTO. How did that come about?

PAPPAS: Sure. Director Kappos and I started talking about it in August or September of last year since it was clear that Drew was going to go back to Patents management. Previously the Chief of Staff position was more or less a one-year to two-year rotation for talented career folks, usually from Patents. In my previous role as Senior Advisor to Dave Kappos, I shared with Drew some of the functions that you’d associate with the Chief of Staff job in other agencies, and we worked closely and well together. And because of my background and relationships within the administration Dave felt that the Chief of Staff role was where I could add the most value. So I think Dave thought of it as a natural progression in some ways and so things moved in that direction. The decision was made in early October, but because I am a political appointee, every change in status has to be approved by the White House so it didn’t become official until November.

QUINN: Isn’t the Chief of Staff typically a political appointee at other agencies anyway?

PAPPAS: Well that’s probably true – yes. In that sense the USPTO has been different than the other agencies of Commerce. By putting a political in the Chief of Staff role, Director Kappos was essentially aligning the USPTO structurally with the most of other agencies of Commerce – and the Administration for that a matter — because the main responsibility of that person, in addition to helping achieve the objectives of the head of the agency, is to make sure that the agency’s priorities are aligned with the administration’s priorities, to liaise with Commerce and the other agencies of the administration, to identify opportunities as well as potential landmines, and to make the Agency does its job well and that it reflects well on the Administration.

QUINN: One of the things that struck me as being particularly astute about Dave Kappos was that he put somebody like you on the senior management team, because in the past, one of the problems at the Patent Office was conveying the message. There was not a very good understanding in the patent bar of a lot of things. There were always questions of “Why is the Patent Office doing this and why are they doing that?” which has led in some places to a poor reputation for the Agency and conspiracy theories or just people wondering. You were in charge of communications and communications have gotten a lot better since you got here. I know I have thrown a bunch out on the table there. Do you want to comment?

PAPPAS: Sure. Dave clearly recognized the importance of the communication function and we discussed it at length before he hired me. It was something that we talked about from the very beginning and we still talk about it very regularly. I continue to have a hand in communications, at least until we name a new Chief Communications Officer, which I hope will be imminent. Anyway, Dave cares a lot about it, has a lot of experience in it. He totally gets that the communications function is an incredibly important function and that the person who has that job in corporations is a senior strategic advisor. They are not simply getting the message out, but they have a seat at the table in the decision making because they are able to bring out the perspectives of how does this relate to everything else, how will this be perceived, what are the pitfalls, etc. This was not always the case here at the USPTO and I was charged with changing that when he hired me. I think there was a clear need to explain what the USPTO was doing a lot better, absolutely, and why it matters – not just to inventors and patent and trademark lawyers, but to the public at large. As Dave Kappos has said many times, this is not your grandfather’s PTO anymore. The PTO is now front and center in a way that it wasn’t two decades ago, and that has required us to up our game in a number of areas, including our messaging.

Let’s face it – today IP is more widely understood to be a driver of economic policy. IP policy intersects with social policy and economic policy in a lot of key areas. So what we do here has to perceived and understood within that broader narrative, and people need to understand how what we do matters to them, and how it impacts the economy, the onward march of technology and the ways in which IP touches their daily lives. Critical to the success of the patent reform effort, which had been going on for ten years, was our ability to successfully explain and articulate a message around some of the tougher issues and concerns people had about the bill. We had to develop persuasive arguments and make a compelling case for why patent reform was important — not just to the patent system, but to the economy and jobs as a whole.

QUINN: OK. Now, I would like to ask a question about a typical day although I have this belief that there is probably really is no such thing as a typical day. Can you give us an idea of what the Chief of Staff does everyday?

PAPPAS: Well there is no typical day but I attend many of Dave’s meetings, our various senior staff and management meetings and work on whatever things are this week’s priorities and sometimes put out fires. Part of that is helping to manage the flow of information internally as well as externally, keeping projects on track, providing advice on a variety of things, and generally working to bring this to resolution and closure while making sure all of the external constituencies are kept in the loop. When I became the Chief of Staff, we restructured the front office a bit. We have a great team and we’ve aligned responsibilities in a way that makes sure we get everything taken care and which also enables me to focus most of my attention on the areas where Dave and Terry think I add the most value. We created a new senior advisor and director of support operations role, and brought John Cabecca on board to focus on some of the internal administration and management of the front office support staff and also to advise Dave on patent matters and various other issues. Azam Khan, our deputy Chief of Staff, handles a number of key projects including the nationwide work force and Select USA, and is a key member of the team. And Sue Purvis serves very ably as Terry’s expert advisor. And Grace, of course, who keeps the schedule and makes the trains run. So it’s a group effort and the whole front office team works hard to keep up with Dave and to move his agenda forward.

QUINN: What do you see on the horizon this year?

PAPPAS: So I think that last year was clearly the year of the patent. We finally got patent reform done, we hopefully got full access to our fees, we got fee setting authority and we made a huge dent in the backlog. We also made a lot of progress on work sharing, we expanded the PPH – so we did a lot of things in the patent area — bringing down pendency and improving quality. There was a huge focus on patents last year. And Trademarks had another banner year, meeting or exceeding all of their goals.

But I think we are envisioning that this year – in addition to patent reform implementation, which is huge, and moving forward on patent harmonization, another big priority – an area where Al Tramposch really moved the ball forward during his tenure here — we are clearly going to be focused on copyrights in a couple of areas. The Internet piracy/SOPA and Protect IP set of issues will need to be worked out with our active involvement, although not necessarily in the short term. We’ve got the AV Treaty that looks like it is going to come together in Beijing in the summer. We have committed to do a green paper on digital copyright issues. You may recall Gene, that in the summer of 2010, in July, we did a forum under the auspices of Secretary Locke at the Reagan Center. It was a half-day seminar and discussion of the pressing IP issues in the digital environment and we agreed to do it on green papers. Shira Perlmutter, our new EA administrator, is a deep copyright expert and is now going to really focus on getting that done because that was one of Dave’s commitments to Secretary Locke early on, and it is also a priority of Secretary Bryson. This is an area where the USPTO can really lead on copyright policy. We are also in early stages of developing a national innovation strategy, which is something that we will be working on with other agencies. It is still in the very early stages but we feel that there are a lot of issues where the USPTO expertise can be leveraged to help generate thoughtful recommendations for the administration across the entire terrain of IP – patents, trademarks and copyright.

QUINN: When I spoke with Director Kappos recently, one of the things he told me about you is that you are a trusted advisor and that one of the things he counts on you for is to tell him when you thought he was making a mistake or hadn’t considered everything fully. He made clear that you and he talk a lot about a host of different issues. I think any leader needs that person, but that could be a delicate position to be in. Tell me, how do you approach your advisor role? How do you go about giving advice or counsel? Do you wait for Dave to ask your opinion on a particular subject?

PAPPAS: Well he often does ask my opinion – as he seeks the counsel of others. He has a very open management style and I think that serves him well. But I don’t necessarily wait to be asked if I think something needs to be addressed or reassessed. I think that I am expected to be aware of pretty much everything major that is going on here and to look for opportunities and to think about the interplay between things. In my new role I have more time to think about these things and to help the Agency’s leadership move our agenda forward. It is also probably true that I sometimes serve as a sounding board for some of my colleagues as well as for Dave and for Terry. Sometimes people will ask me “what do you think Dave would think about this? or how do you think we should handle that?” – and that is an important role as well. Dave Kappos works very, very hard, as you well know, and manages a lot of projects and an awful lot of people. To the extent I am able to help move things forward so they don’t end up on his plate – and too much already ends up on his plate – then that’s probably a good thing.

So in a sense there is no such thing as a typical day. And one of the things I love about this job is that it is never boring. You know this, Gene, but Dave is very active, engaged, hands-on and incredibly dedicated to this Agency. So that means we have always got a lot of balls in the air and we are always doing stuff and that means that issues always come up and it keeps it very interesting.

QUINN: So as a non-patent, non-trademark, non-copyright person but a lawyer with deep experience in government and deep experience in communications, you can offer a very unique perspective on a number of issues that may not have otherwise been brought to bear here at the PTO because so often the people here are steeped into the industry.

PAPPAS: Yes, I think that is right. I guess I operate at the intersection of policy, politics, strategy and communications. And I think ultimately to be successful you really have to put that all together. So I hope that I add value in those areas. And I try to be a closer, to move things forward, to keep focused on the important things and also to bring a sense of urgency to the things that require it.

QUINN: How do you go about doing that? Just logistically, is this to make sure that everybody is on the same page? So ideas probably filter up and filter down and bounce around and at some point the administration has got to get everybody on the same page. Is that what you are talking about?

PAPPAS: I’m talking about that for the things that rise to that level. For example patent reform would rise to that level or SOPA would rise to that level. But even on more of a day-to-day basis, I am always on the phone with the folks at Commerce, whether it’s the communications folks or the folks in the Chief of Staff’s office, giving them a heads up on things that they need to know about. Obviously they do not need to know about everything, but it’s about keeping them informed, making sure that they are on board where appropriate, that they are never blindsided, making sure that we are responsive to requests from the White House and, much more regularly, the Secretary’s office. Secretary Bryson has been there almost six months now and he is very interested in IP issues, and we often get requests, sometimes in a short time frame, for briefing materials. And the Secretary has set a pretty high standard for those documents. He really wants us to explain in a concise and clear document why he should care about something and why it matters to his and the Administration’s priorities and what exactly he can do to move the ball forward on it.

Having that kind of regular communication is key. The Chiefs of Staff also meet on a weekly basis down at DOC, and we are invited to participate in some of the senior staff meetings downtown. We all get together to meet and talk about whatever issues need to be discussed so we will coordinate on the big things, on what our principals can do to amplify a particular message. We are now working on several of the Secretary’s priorities – the National Export Initiative, for example, and Advanced Manufacturing. IP is a major export as you know, and its protection is essential to maintaining that. And it is a key driver of advanced manufacturing, an engine of economic recovery. So IP is integral to the Department’s priorities – and the Administration’s priorities. There are many initiatives like those which often require a quick turnaround and a highly coordinated effort.

QUINN: Sitting here listening to you talk and having observed from a distance, I am trying to figure out a way to convey this somebody who will never observe it, certainly most people will not be a Chief of Staff in a government agency. Could you describe it a little bit like the leader of the orchestra where there are so many moving pieces and parts?

PAPPAS: (Laughs) That’s funny. No but it might be more like an air traffic controller. I need to be aware of all of the planes that are out there and trying to help make sure that they land smoothly and in some sort of proper sequence. I think that is the best analogy I can come up with.

QUINN: But you sound like the person who pulls it all together and makes sure all of the various pieces move.

PAPPAS: Yes, the entire front office staff works to make sure we do that, and ultimately Dave and Terry do that. We all work closely together every day, looking at the schedule that day, the week ahead, more weeks ahead, to make sure that things are adequately briefed, adequately staffed, that they have the information that they need, that we are all on the same page and that whatever needs to be done gets done. In government you have got many constituencies. You’ve got the IP community so we are obviously focused on the outreach to them and making sure that they are aware of what we are doing, that we get their input, we are part of the administration so we have to manage those relationships. We also want to make sure that the USPTO has a prominent seat at the table on all of the issues that we care about. On paper, the head of the USPTO is the Undersecretary of Commerce for IP and is the President’s primary advisor through the Secretary of Commerce. However, as you know Gene, IP is the like telecom used to be. It’s the “new black”… everyone is interested in IP. You have an IP shop at ITA at DOC, people at the White House are interested in IP, there’s USTR, we have the IPEC, the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator shop at the White House now, which is new. So to be affective we have to be good, we’ve got to generate good new ideas, but we also need to be effective at navigating that process, because we do not make policy in a vacuum. Obviously there are things that the USPTO director does within his authority as the USPTO director. But I am talking about broader IP policy. That has to be a consensus driven process and you have to be affective at playing on that arena and pursuing your agenda in the inter-agency process to get the outcome you want.

QUINN: Well let me ask you a follow-up question. You seem ideally suited to be Chief of Staff and people I talk to think you’ve done a great job for the PTO.

PAPPAS: Well that’s nice to hear. Thank you. But I think it starts with the fact that we have an extremely capable leader in Dave Kappos. He is extremely well respected throughout the Commerce Department and throughout the administration and of course in the IP community. And he has done an outstanding job by any measure. He has also really helped put IP on the national agenda, and our issues are now routinely covered in major media outlets.

QUINN: OK, great. Well now I’d like to move into another direction. When I interviewed Deputy Director Rea, I asked her about this historic moment of women taking on both the Deputy Director and Patent Commissioner roles and it slipped my mind that the Commissioner of Trademarks is also a woman.

PAPPAS: Well yes that is right.

QUINN: Right, the Deputy Director, Patent Commissioner and the Commissioner for Trademarks are all women. It seems like a very historic moment.

PAPPAS: Well yes, I think it is a historic moment. I think that in terms of our overall leadership team, we’ve got Terry who is just great as the Deputy Director, and someone I really enjoy working with. Sharon was also a superstar, as was Arti Rai – so we have had a lot of highly talented women here already. I think that Peggy was a great choice. She’s someone who takes the time to think things through and give you a thoughtful opinion on something. She is calm and balanced — a consummate professional and a real leader.

QUINN: Yes, I hear the same exact thing about her too. You know that I hear things both on and off the record and I have never heard anything negative about Peggy at all.

PAPPAS: Peggy is great! And Debbie Cohen is also great. The trademarks operation is a very well running shop. And what’s funny about Trademarks is that when they have what is a relatively speaking a small problem they tend to get very concerned about it because it is so rare and foreign to them. They are so used to things running like clockwork that they get extremely concerned about it. I love working with the folks in Trademarks.

I think one of Dave’s legacies, of his many legacies, is that he is a great manager and has cultivated talent and really gets the best out of people, because he gives so much to the job. No one works harder than he does, so he really inspires us all. I think you have gotten a sense of that Gene, right?

QUINN: Yes, Yes. He just seems like a robot at times with the shear number of hours that he can put in. He must just not need much sleep it seems.

PAPPAS: Yes, he works hard.

QUINN: Yes, I know. I hear stories about emails at 11:00 PM and midnight, and that is on Saturday and Sunday.

PAPPAS: Well that is a slight exaggeration and I think he has slowed down a little bit since year one when it comes to weekends. Dave is taking at least a part of each weekend off lately. But yes he does work hard as do so many people here. And we now have the new Secretary’s team in place, and they work very hard too. I get a lot of emails from them at midnight too. But, you know, we politicals are all aware that we are here for a finite period of time and we tend to be in a hurry to get things done. And we want this Administration to succeed so that our country can succeed. I think Dave personifies that instinct as well as anybody.

QUINN: Well, that is really all I have. I know you and I could go on chatting for hours, but I know you need to get back to work. Thanks for taking the time to go on the record.

PAPPAS: Thanks Gene. It was a pleasure. Thank you.


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One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Steve M]
    Steve M
    March 6, 2012 09:02 pm

    Thank you both for a great interview.

    What an improvement over how things used to be.