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U.S. patent office appoints AOL lawyer to top general counsel job

By Pamela MacLean

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has appointed a top lawyer at AOL Inc as its general counsel, the agency confirmed Wednesday.

Sarah Harris, AOL's deputy general counsel for intellectual property, will fill a post that has been empty since August 30, when the former general counsel, Bernard Knight, returned to private practice.

Harris will oversee an office of 100 lawyers and paralegals and three deputy general counsels, according to the U.S. agency. No start date has been set for her.

"We are thrilled to welcome Sarah Harris as the USPTO's new general counsel," said Michelle Lee, deputy director of the USPTO and deputy undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property.

Lee, a former deputy general counsel at Google Inc, was appointed deputy director in December and holds the highest post in the agency.

The USPTO has been without a director since David Kappos, a former International Business Machines Corp executive, left in February to return to private practice. Acting director Teresa Stanek Rea left the agency in November.

"I am honored and thrilled about the opportunity to work with Michelle Lee and the other incredibly impressive people at the USPTO," Harris said in a statement.

Knight said the selection of Harris, as someone with background in the software and high-tech industry, was likely to be seen as a boost to White House efforts to thwart companies accused of abusive patent litigation, often derisively called "patent trolls."

Harris's experience at AOL, along with Lee's former job at Google, reflects the administration's turn to lawyers with more high-technology and software backgrounds in the agency's top ranks.

"The disappointing aspect of this news is that we're building up a leadership structure in the USPTO without actually having an appointed director in charge," said Dennis Crouch, a patent attorney and author of the Patently O blog, which covers U.S. patent law issues.

Crouch praised the Harris appointment, saying, "she will bring strong pragmatic leadership in that role."

Harris oversees AOL's intellectual property policies and strategies for managing issues, including patent litigation, copyrights, trade secrets, defamation, publicity rights, trademarks and domain names.

(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Ted Botha and Amanda Kwan)

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