It may soon get tougher to trademark a plant.
Monsanto, a major developer of herbicides and GMO commodity crops, is facing a comprehensive review by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for four patents it uses to protect bioengineered inventions such as herbicide-resistant canola and pest-resistant cotton.
The company has leveraged these patents in successful lawsuits in Europe, Canada and the United States against farmers and agribusiness operations who they claim violated contracts by saving seeds from one year's harvest and replanting them the next.
If the patents are revoked, “all of the lawsuits that they have pending against farmers would have to be dismissed,” said Dan Ravicher, founder and executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, the legal activism group that petitioned for the review.
It should be an interesting fight. Monsanto has a history of winning in court, particularly against defenses that brought their cases on the finer points of the GMO debate.
Ravicher's challenge, however, focuses on the patentability of a lab technique that underpins several of Monsanto's genetic modification processes, and his upstart foundation is already developing a reputation as a giant-killer. In the past two years, the group has successfully argued for the revocation of major patents from Pfizer and Microsoft.
A revocation of these patents, held since the mid-1980s, could have far-reaching implications for the future of genetically modified crops. It would be a serious blow to large biotech companies that profit from their international control of proprietary seeds and herbicides. New biotech upstarts could move in, since the lab techniques would become part of the public domain.