In the U.S., navigating intellectual property rights that are commonly used on seed can be confusing and complicated. Over the years OSA has developed tools and organized learning events to help growers working with seed, plant breeders, and seed advocates learn and support alternative models. We’ve gathered the resources below as a one-stop-shop for understanding some of the many aspects of intellectual property rights used on seed.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to Seed Intellectual Property Rights
- Reference Table for Intellectual Property Rights on Seed
- Seed Patent Watch
- USDA Fair and Competitive Seed Report
- Event Recordings
A Guide to Seed Intellectual Property Rights
A Guide to Seed Intellectual Property Rights was written by Paulina Jenney and adapted from her professional paper, Keeping What You Sow: Intellectual Property Rights for Plant Breeders and Seed Growers, submitted in May 2022 to the University of Montana. This guide was developed to provide seed growers with a toolkit for navigating seed IPR.
Between February 2021 and February 2022, we interviewed 21 seed growers representing a variety of backgrounds in seed production, from backyard gardeners to keepers of local varieties, to university plant breeders, to owners of seed companies both small and large. Some interviewees had engaged with some form of intellectual property protection, and some had not. During each interview, we asked each participant what type of crop they grew, their perspective on intellectual property and seed marketing in general, and to voice any questions they still had about IPR, among other questions more specific to each individual. We were able to talk to less than half of those contacted for an interview, with the majority of people who declined to participate citing a lack of time as their reason for not agreeing to an interview. The sample size means that participants in this study represent a very limited cross-section of the vast and diverse community of people involved in organic seed work; still, this constitutes a good starting point for beginning to understand some common themes and approaches to IPR that people who work with seeds tend to have.
In this guide, you will find insights from those interviews, including special “Seed Stories,” in which a particular grower shares their experience and strategy for navigating intellectual property rights. You will also find answers to some of the more common questions that emerged from participants over the course of this research. Still, many questions remain about how to ethically market seeds in the modern agricultural landscape. In this way, while the guide attempts to answer some questions, it also raises many others. Many of the questions approached here do not have easy, clear-cut answers, and instead seek to provide a “toolkit” that consolidates as much of the current information available as possible into a single, searchable resource for the organic plant breeder or seed grower.
Reference Table for Intellectual Property Rights on Seed
OSA developed this reference table of intellectual property rights commonly used on seed in the U.S. as a quick reference learning tool for growers working with seed and advocates. We’re grateful to Bill Tracy of University of Wisconsin-Madison for his input on this resource.
Seed Patent Watch
Restricting people from continuing our co-evolution with plants for food security is an attack on humanity today and on future generations. We have seen, in the last 100 years, a complete shift in the management of seed as a public resource to one that is largely privatized. Organic Seed Alliance and others continue to raise awareness about the problem of utility patents on seed.
OSA has launched the Seed Patent Watch project. Join us in advocating for policies that protect seed stewards, and in taking actions against utility patents and other restrictive forms of intellectual property rights (IPR) that privatize the living, natural resource of seed.
USDA Fair and Competitive Seed Report
In 2022, the USDA opened an inquiry into competition concerns in the seed industry, and in particular, the department looked at how intellectual property (IP) rights foster unfair competition and access to seed by farmers, plant breeders, tribal seed stewards, and other growers. This inquiry stemmed from a July 9, 2021, Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. Per the Biden Administration’s request, the USDA opened a public comment period and hosted a listening forum to inform a report with their findings and recommendations on these topics.
In March 2023, the USDA delivered on its promise to release a report, titled: More and Better Choices for Farmers: Promoting Fair Competition and Innovation in Seeds and Other Agricultural Inputs.
OSA offers an extensive online resource library with free access to reports, trainings, conference proceedings, webinars, and virtual event recordings. Below is a selection of recordings from events we’ve hosted focused on IPR.
- Intellectual Property Rights, Race, and Colonialism: A Community Conversation
- Seed Commons & Ownership: A Listening Session on IPR
- Understanding Seed IPR (Organic Seed Growers Conference 2022)
The development of these resources was made possible in part thanks to funding from the Clif Family Foundation.