You hear a lot of talk about piracy in the developing world, about Nigerian markets filled with bootleg DVDs or Chinese iPod knockoffs.
But if you want to see what real piracy looks like, look at the bio-pirates, people and corporations who receive patents on common life-forms from the developing world (abetted by the sleepy and lackadaisical US Patent and Trademark Office) and then use their might and muscle to tax people for growing, consuming and exporting the plants they’ve lived with for centuries, on the grounds that these plants are now some rich person’s property.
One such injustice is finally drawing to a close. US Patent Number 5,894,079, belonging Colorado’s Larry Proctor, has been struck down. Proctor brought home some yellow beans from a Mexican market and filed for a patent on them in the 1990s, neglecting to tell the USPTO that the beans had been a dietary staple in latinamerica for over a century.
Proctor called them “Enola beans” and began to receive a toll on every Enola bean imported into the US from latinamerica. He used this money to fund a series of defenses to challenges on his patent. Because the patent system continues to enforce challenged patents while the gears of litigation turn, for every year that went by, Proctor found himself richer and better-able to fund his defense, while the people who had grown and eaten the beans for a century got poorer.
Proctor still has the right to appeal his patent up to the Supreme Court, of course.
CIAT officials said that, while they were concerned about the immediate economic impact of the Enola patent, more broadly, they worried that the patent would establish a precedent threatening public access to plant germplasm-the genetic material that comprises the inherited qualities of an organism-held in trust by CIAT and research centers worldwide.The CIAT genebank is one of 11 maintained worldwide by the CGIAR, where crop materials such as seeds, stems and tubers are held in trust with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The genebanks house a total of about 600,000 plant varieties in publicly accessible collections, which are viewed as the pillar of global efforts to conserve agriculture biodiversity and maintain global food security. Plant breeders in both the public and private sectors are constantly seeking access to these resources to help them breed new types of crop varieties, particularly when existing varieties are threatened by pests or disease.