Bruce A. Lehman: Intellectual-Property Rights Seen as Issue for 21st Century

Article excerpt

Bruce A. Lehman is trying to get the world economy ready for the 21st century.

Mr. Lehman has formed a nonprofit organization, the International Intellectual Property Institute, to try to convince developing countries to adopt and enforce intellectual-property laws.

Companies obtain copyrights, patents and trademarks from governments to protect their ideas and inventions, such as books, computer software, movies and music recordings. But unauthorized copying and selling of such property is rampant, especially in less-advanced countries.

U.S. companies say they lose billions of dollars a year in sales to piracy, and the problem has been getting worse, because the Internet's growth makes it possible to send information around the world with the click of a button.

Mr. Lehman wants to convince foreign countries that intellectual-property laws are in their own interests, as well. Countries will need such laws if they want to modernize in an increasingly technology-based world economy, he said.

Mr. Lehman, a Wisconsin native, has been involved in intellectual property as a lawyer and government official for most of his adult life. He headed the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office from the early days of the Clinton administration until leaving last December to form the institute.

He recently reflected on his current and former challenges in dealing with piracy, in an interview at his new Capitol Hill office.

Question: How did you get into public service?

Answer: I decided when I was 14 years old that I was going to be a lawyer and a high government official. When I got out of the Army . . . I was offered a job by my congressman from Madison, Wisconsin, Robert [W.] Kastenmeier, then a [senior] member of the House Judiciary Committee, to be a counsel to the committee.

The committee was just at that time starting its impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon. That's how I got into intellectual property. The more senior staff people all went to work immediately on the impeachment. Meanwhile, the work of the committee had to go forward.

I worked for nine years on the committee. I did a lot of other things, too, but I became the committee's principal counsel for all of the patent-, trademark- and copyright-law issues. In January 1983, I left and became a lawyer of counsel and, within a year, a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm, Swidler & Berlin. I was there for nine years.

It was a very fast growing, very successful law firm. But I always wanted to come back in the government. And I worked on every Democratic campaign that was possible - [Walter F.] Mondale's, [Michael S.] Dukakis' [presidential bids.] I thought I was never going to come back into the government unless I switched political parties.

But I signed up to work fairly early on in the Clinton campaign and, lo and behold, Clinton was elected. There were individuals who handled each of the government departments and agencies that prepared transition papers, and I did the transition paper and handled the transition for the Patent & Trademark Office. Shortly thereafter, I was nominated to be the head of it.

Q: What do you like about the intellectual-property field?

A: It's a cliche to talk about everything being the thing of the 21st century, but it is the law of the 21st century. I think I saw that back then. A lot of people thought it was a very arcane area, but society is in the midst of an enormous shift right now.

A decreasing minority of people make anything tangible. Most people today sit in an office, they have [a computer] right behind them and that is where they do their work. They are not tangibly making anything. They are thinking up new products. They're designing products, which oftentimes end up as a manufactured product, but the product might be manufactured in a cheap-labor country overseas or by a machine. …