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Plant patents and GMOs - Troubles for a Workin' Man

In their 2015 album The Monsanto Years, Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young and American rock group Promise of the Real criticize the power of agrochemical corporations.

The lyrics of the title Workin' Man address Monsanto's enforcement of patents issued to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) against farmers and seeders, exemplified by a working man who travelled from farm to farm planting seeds seemingly obtained originally from Monsanto.

One summer morning just around dawn Four men with briefcases were on the working man's lawn We're gonna to sue you, take you to court For patent infringement, the criminals you support

The story told by this song also touches upon the issue whether Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who is said to have worked for Monsanto before becoming a Judge should have recused himself.

Supreme Court in session made a new law GMO seeds and patents had a fatal flaw Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas worked for Monsanto

While the legal issues behind the protection of plants are diverse and too complicated to be discussed in this short post, the following basic information is certainly helpful:

  • In the United States and many other jurisdictions, plant varieties can be protected through plant patents, utility patents, and plant variety protection (PVP). Obviously, plant breeders may also consider trade secrets.

  • According to the USPTO, Plant Patents are granted for distinct and new plant varieties asexually reproduced, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state.

  • Plant Variety Protection is available for seeds, tubers, and asexually reproduced plants.

A farmer is permitted to save seed from protected varieties and use it in the production of crops. Prior to 1994, it was also allowed for farmers to sell saved seed to third parties.

This latter change seems to be addressed in the fourth line of Workin' Man's lyrics:

Out in the country, that was '96.
  • Lastly, also Utility Patents are a useful IP Right in protecting plants, for example, for the protection of methods, genes, traits, plant parts and varieties.

It is with cool to see that a very special and often unknown section of Intellectual Property law is picked out as a central theme in an entire album and track. Worth listening to the song and even the album cover is a must see!

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