The head of the Trump administration’s patent and trademark office is the featured speaker at a fundraiser for a right-wing group — an event sponsored by pharmaceutical companies that have business with the agency.
Andre Iancu, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a self-funded federal agency that issues the nation’s patents, is delivering a speech on “restoring American patents” at a May 22 fundraising dinner for the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles and the Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund.
The two organizations, founded by the late social conservative leader Phyllis Schafly, serve as lobbying and education organs, respectively, for causes like restricting abortion rights and immigration, fighting “radical feminists” and supporting “traditional” education, such as religious homeschooling.
“Phyllis Schlafly Eagles’s Mission is to enable conservative and pro-family men and women to participate in the process of self-government and public policy making so that America will continue to be a land of individual liberty, respect for family integrity, public and private virtue, and private enterprise,” the Eagles’ website states.
But though the two Eagles groups are billed mainly as socially conservative outfits, the May 22 fundraiser is sponsored by an array of powerful corporate lobbying interests.
The trade organizations backing the event include PhRMA, which represents major pharmaceutical companies; the Biotechnology Innovation Institute, another pharmaceutical lobbying group; the Innovation Alliance, which represents drugmakers and technology firms; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The common goal of the various trade groups sponsoring the event is preserving and strengthening patent protections that guarantee them competition-free streams of profits for their products.
The event provides a unique window into how large corporations exercise power in Washington. Partnering with a socially conservative organization with an ostensibly different agenda allows pharmaceutical companies to align themselves with the conservative grassroots movement and, in the process, make it seem like they have an organic constituency. It’s a tactic known as “astroturfing”: using the veneer of grassroots activism to mask an elite agenda.
Likewise, by speaking to the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, Iancu can pass the speech off as engaging a conservative constituent group, rather than cozying up to the very companies that depend on him for their businesses to thrive.
The United States patent and trademark system is intended to encourage innovation and research by preventing the theft of new ideas. For a fee, any inventor can apply to the government for ownership of the intellectual property associated with an idea or product they have come up with. The knowledge that a person can benefit financially from their inventions without fear of someone else passing the idea off as their own is meant to be an incentive for research and ultimately, new inventions.
This is especially true for pharmaceutical companies, which game the system to effectively extend patents that typically expire within a decade. One way they do that is through “evergreening,” a tactic in which drugmakers make a minor modification to an existing drug, claim it is a new innovation and take out a new patent on it. The practice shields the drug from competition, keeping the price artificially high long after a company has earned back the money it invested in inventing the original product.
Iancu’s appearance at the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles event appears to undermine President Donald Trump’s promise as a candidate to lower prescription drug prices by getting tough with the companies that sell them. Although his health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, is a former CEO of drugmaker Eli Lilly, Trump has recently directed him to take steps, however modest, aimed at lowering prices. The White House is even negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a potential deal to empower Medicare to negotiate bulk rates on prescriptions.
A spokesperson for Iancu declined to comment on whether it’s a conflict of interest for the head of an agency responsible for issuing patents to speak at a fundraiser sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.
The spokesperson also declined to comment on whether Iancu endorses the extreme commentary that Schlafly offered on current events prior to her death in September 2016.
Schlafly blamed a liberal English department for inspiring the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, claimed that Latino immigration is undermining baseball, praised authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and worried that the removal of Confederate monuments would lead to French Revolution-style mob justice.
A spokesperson for the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the reason they have become involved in patent policy.
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