Intellectual Property

Patent Sense

Letting genes out of the bottle.

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Activist groups such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International complain that the technology behind genetically modified (GM) crop seeds is usually patented, often by huge conglomerates such as Monsanto. They fear patent controls will make poor farmers serfs of global agri-conglomerates because they'll have to buy seeds every year under restrictive licensing agreements.

But patents don't last forever. In the U.S. they last 20 years from the issue date, and in Europe it's 20 years from the application date. For some key GM plant patents, including several held by Monsanto, that anniversary arrives this year—and as the decade progresses many more will be expiring. In the long run, because the patent system eliminates "trade secrets" and tells the whole world how things are done, it guarantees that inventions will become available to anyone, free of restrictions.

Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, notes that agribusinesses frequently allow use of their patented seeds and genes by nonprofit foundations and researchers, such as the developers of beta-carotene-filled "golden rice," designed to reduce vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world.

It is still possible, indeed probable, that companies like Monsanto will try to maintain patent-like protections through restrictive licensing agreements with farmers. "Monsanto's agreement system could continue," Conko grants. "But once the patent expires, there are far fewer startup cost for the next entrepreneurial firm to reproduce it, either without licensing agreements or with one but at a lower price."