Intellectual property rights for new plant varieties have expanded
Errata: On January 18, 2018, the Chart of Note article “Intellectual property rights for new plant varieties have expanded” was reposted to correct a mislabeling in the chart’s legend.
Intellectual property rights are intended to offer incentives for innovation by protecting new inventions from imitation and competition. When the modern U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was established in 1836, new plant varieties were considered products of nature and, therefore, not eligible for protection under any form of intellectual property. In 1930, asexually reproducing plants were the first to receive protection through plant patents, which have been issued primarily for fruits, tree nuts, and horticultural species. The remainder of the plant kingdom, including a broad range of commercial crops, became eligible for protection in 1970 with the introduction of plant variety protection certificates (PVPCs). However, PVPCs had exemptions for farmers to save seeds and for research uses. Full patent protection (without these exemptions) arrived in 1980 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This ruling extended utility patent protection—the type of protection provided to most inventions in other areas—to plants. Despite being available for the least amount of time, annual utility patent grants for plant cultivars and lines have rapidly overtaken PVPCs and reached similar levels as plant patents. The rapid rise of utility patents mirrored the rapid rise in private research and development in the seed and agricultural biotech sector over a similar period. This chart updates data found in the ERS report Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2006 Edition.
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