Seed Patent History

June 19, 2009

“The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 11, 1859).

“The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 11, 1859).

That statement, by one of the most influential presidents of the United States, succinctly states the purpose of the U.S. patent law. There needs to be incentive to inspire invention, without it there would be no progress. This is true with Monsanto, as with any company. Without the ability to patent and profit from our efforts there would be little incentive to develop the technology that thousands of farmers use today.

There have been some pretty outlandish claims made about Monsanto and our patents. I have seen statements, on the Web and in films, which seem to suggest that Monsanto was behind the creation of some patent laws. Others have gone so far as to claim that Monsanto is trying to patent life. This is not the case. I’ve also noticed a fair amount of uncertainty on what falls under patent protection–only new varieties or new biotech traits may be patented; heirloom varieties and other existing varieties are not patentable.

It’s time to clear up some of the confusion about patents and I’ll admit, it’s not easy; the legal documentation around patents is not my first pick for my before-bed read. However, clearing up the history of patents and highlighting the importance of patent protection is necessary so I’ll do my best to explain it thoroughly.

Although it may seem that the patenting of seeds and other living organisms is a recent trend, in actuality the first patent on a living organism dates back to 1873 when Monsieur Louis Pasteur was awarded U.S. Patent #141,072 with a claim to yeast. This was actually one of the first food production related patents–the yeast was for beer production to reduce spoilage of the beer. I don’t like skunky beer and I would venture to guess that you don’t either. Surely, the ability to patent the yeast has lead to innovations in beer making and could very well be the reason why we have the delicious frosty brews of today.

Now, the patenting of plants has an extensive history, dating back long before Monsanto started developing genetically-engineered seeds.

In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed. The Plant Patent Act made is possible to patent some new varieties of asexually-reproduced plants. In 1954, there was an amendment to the 1952 Patent Act. This amendment made it clear that cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings were patentable when asexually reproduced.

In 1975, the first utility patent on a seed was issued to Earl Patterson of the University of Illinois. This patent was for maize seed.

There were a couple other rulings that further affirmed patenting of plants and biotechnology products. In 1980, the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case affirmed living things were eligible for patent protection with the decision a genetically-modified bacterium was patentable. Five years later, the Patent and Trademark Office made a ruling in Ex parte Hibberd that plants were patentable.

Now, back to Monsanto. In 1982, scientists working for the original Monsanto Company were the first to genetically modify a plant cell and, in 1996, Monsanto introduced its first biotech seeds to market.

In reality most, if not all, litigation as to whether living organisms, plants or seeds are the proper subject matter of patents occurred before Monsanto was in the seed business.

Is Monsanto in favor of patent protection for seeds and biotech traits? Of course. We did not, however, invent it nor do we seek patent rights to existing varieties or traits.

Patent protection restricts others from practicing your invention which often allows companies and individuals the ability to profit from their work. These profits often lend themselves to the development of new and more innovative products. Just think of all the conveniences in your life that you would be without if the patent system did not exist! Many new inventions or processes have been made possible due to the patent system, such as your favorite beer (thanks to Louis Pasteur).

Kate works on the corporate website for Monsanto in the public affairs department. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Truman State University. Kate grew up in an Air Force family and has lived in sevaral states and countries but spent the majority of her childhood growing up in Iowa. Kate enjoys art and photography as well as horseback riding.

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2 Responses to “Seed Patent History”

  1. martin Says:

    Hi Kate. Could provide a basic explanation of the patent violation that Dupont is alleging? I’ve read through the counter-claim, but it is difficult to understand without a background in intellectual property law.

    • Kathleen Says:

      Hi Martin,

      Kate is out of the office so I thought I would answer. Monsanto brought a lawsuit against DuPont because of an agreement we had with the company regarding trait stacking and combining different traits. Basically, they violated the agreement by stacking the Roundup Ready trait with another glyphosate tolerance trait, Optimum GAT. In the agreement they promised not to do that. We have a website set up to explain the lawsuit in more detail, “Why We’re Suing DuPont”

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