Science - April 20, 2010

Cabinet: 'Patents stumbling block to breeding'

Biotech companies may no longer stand in the way of other breeders by patenting the characteristics of plants. Therefore, the European patent law needs to be amended, says the Dutch government.

The current patent law is meant to protect inventors, but it can also be a stumbling block to the development of new plant species. This problem will have to be solved, proposed ministers Verburg and Van der Hoeven in a letter to the Dutch House of Representatives.
The ministers are responding to a report on breeding issues submitted by the Centre for Genetic Resources of the Netherlands (CGN) in which a change in patent law and reinforcement of breeders' rights are advocated. The Netherlands has a big say in plant breeding matters, as 24 percent of the export value of vegetative source materials in the world originate from this country.
Transfer of licenses   
The ministers will integrate a limited breeders' exemption into the patent law in the Netherlands. At this moment, breeders are not permitted to make use of species with a patented gene unless approval is granted. The breeders' exemption will allow them to carry out further breeding of these species. However, if breeding results in a new species with a patented gene, breeders have to transfer their licenses to the company which holds the patent for that gene. This legislation is already in force in Germany, France and Switzerland.
Stricter assessment
The advice committee led by Wageningen plant researcher Niels Louwaars, which compiled the report on breeding issues, wants to take this a step further. This committee proposes to exclude plant characteristics from patent law altogether, so that breeders no longer need to obtain approval and pay a license fee to carry out further development of these species. The ministers support this line of thinking, but feel that the European Commission should make a stand on this issue.
The ministers also feel that the European Patent Office has to be stricter when assessing patent applications. 'It's about being more vigilant when examining patent requirements to avoid granting trivial patents which do not contribute in any way to technological innovation', the ministers write in their submission to the House. They also feel that breeding companies should set up common codes of conduct to prevent misuse of the patent system.
Enthusiastic
The report has already prompted companies to develop proposals to make extension of licenses easier. 'Their idea is nice, but working it out is still a long way off, and it can only solve some of the problems', commented Louwaars. He is enthusiastic that the Dutch government is actively pushing for amendment of the patent law. Louwaars will discuss the report with the breeding sector this Thursday during a European Seed Association meeting in Brussels.

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