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Seeds as intellectual property: issues and controversy




  • The information age is set to revolutionise “the core human idea of property” (Pollack 1999). It all began with software. As software license agreements boldly proclaim, software products are merely licensed, not sold.
    Software licensing ideas are becoming increasingly popular with other objects as well. Even seeds are now sold with a label, licensed. Seed companies want farmers to buy seeds afresh every time they sow a particular variety of seeds. They accuse farmers of seed piracy if the farmers try to save seeds from their harvest and plant them the next year. While the seed companies claim intellectual property rights on their lines of seeds, farmers from all over the globe demand their own property rights in view of their traditional contribution to plant genetic resources. Naturally, “seeds as intellectual property” has become a highly controversial issue.
    Seeds were first recognised as intellectual property in the early 1960s when plant breeders were allowed to patent their seeds. Under the existing legal structure in the United States, utility patents govern the use of genetically engineered seeds. Utility patents grant inventors the right to exclude others from producing or using their discoveries or inventions for a limited period of time. Utility patents usually last a term of 20 years from the date of application. The Plant Variety Protection (PVP), on the other hand, protects improved, inbred seed lines (“Protecting Intellectual Property”). To qualify for the PVP, the seed varieties have to be “novel, uniform, and stable in propagation.” The PVP( Plant variety protection) lasts a period of 18 years after the certificate is issued. Though the PVP empowers its owner to control the distribution of the seeds and transplants through legal means, it also grants limited rights to farmers. A farmer can save a limited amount of seeds for use on his farm without olating the PVP. He can also sell a portion of such saved seeds to his farmer neighbours, provided he does not do so at a commercial level (“Plant Variety Protection”). However, the “Plant Variety Protection Act,” as amended in 1994, now prohibits the sale or transfer of any PVP-protected variety introduced since April 4, 1994 (“Planting Bin-run Seed is Risky, Economically, Legally”).
    In spite of the obvious legal restrictions, some farmers save seeds of all kinds and sell them to other farmers. Though seed companies claim that the certified seeds are pure, free of seed-borne diseases, void of cracks and other mechanical damage, and guarantee very high yields, illegal “brown bagging” continues unabated simply because the seed companies do not have effective means to enforce their intellectual property rights. The seed companies have traditionally found it difficult to bring the infringing farmers to court, although companies like Monsanto have always been very swift and active in investigating possible violations across the pakistan and other countries.


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