Horticulturists have welcomed a joint paper proposing an International System of Co-operation (ISC) for plant breeders' rights (PBR) presented to the UPOV Consultative Committee for consideration last month.
At present, several systems for protecting the royalties paid to plant breeders operate worldwide. This can lead to complications exporting plants to some countries. Much of the payment system operates on trust and this can be abused.
Grower Neil Alcock of Seiont Nurseries says intellectual property is not recognised in some countries, which makes collecting royalties even harder. "Most varieties are produced on a global basis and this would help level the playing field," he adds.
A single system would also help to raise awareness of illegal production and could lead to plant exporters looking at new countries for exports if the new system works, says Alcock.
The paper is the collaborative output of the International Seed Federation (ISF), CropLife International (CLI) and CIOPORA. An international system of co-operation would build on the current UPOV system by increasing its accessibility to plant breeders worldwide and helping them to overcome obstacles they face securing intellectual property rights in UPOV member states.
Plant breeders' agent Graham Spencer of Plants for Europe says the international system is an "excellent" idea. "We already see unified systems for other forms of intellectual property so to have a coordinated filing/application system for plant variety rights is a good idea," he adds.
"Ultimately it should save breeders money as they will be able to file in multiple countries with fewer duplications of paperwork and examinations. They will also be able to make applications without the need to engage a local lawyer to process the paperwork, although it is not clear if the requirement for a local procedural representative will remain. It may also encourage breeders to explore markets that have been overlooked if a low-cost and easy system is available, allowing multiple applications around the world.
"However, one of the stumbling blocks is the variation in implementation of the UPOV convention between member states. Some UPOV members place additional or different requirements on applicants."
Member surveys by ISF, CLI and CIOPORA show that deviation from national application procedures, multiple language regimes, cost and time are the main obstacles. An ISC would enable breeders to file PBR applications in various markets via a simpler unified procedure, creating advantages for breeders and maximising the effectiveness of the UPOV system.
The system is not envisioned to replace local PBR laws and each jurisdiction would still maintain complete sovereignty in their application process. It is also expected that the ease of filing would increase the number of PBR applications in most, if not all, countries.
Benefit for farmers
Studies show that an effective UPOV-like system for PBR benefits farmers too by introducing new foreign varieties, increasing domestic-bred varieties, improving characteristics of varieties in certain crops and increasing the availability of crops.
International Association of Horticultural Producers secretary-general Tim Briercliffe says: "In principle such an international standard should be a good idea but the concept is in such an early stage at the moment that we are reserving judgement to see what the proposed content actually is.
"It is too early to say whether this will be good or bad for growers until there is more detail. But as soon as this becomes clearer we will be able to express an opinion. Next week the UPOV secretary-general will be speaking at the CIOPORA AGM, so further information may be available after that."
HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis Machin said: "From our perspective it seems like a good idea because it should reduce the admin and bureaucracy. There should be a cost saving too but we will not know how significant this will be until the scheme is launched."
Annual general meeting - Global gathering of breeders and intellectual property experts
CIOPORA, the International Association of Breeders of Asexually Reproduced Ornamental & Fruit Varieties, was due to host members and friends from around the world on 27-30 April at its 54th annual general meeting in Hamburg.
The event gathers innovative breeders from the ornamental and fruit sectors, as well as intellectual property experts, to discuss the current system of intellectual property protection for plant innovation and design the blueprint for CIOPORA's position on plants: "To create a fair environment for those who are granted a protection title for their new varieties and want to exercise their rights to enforce against piracy and plagiarism."
Topics included the broccoli and tomato decision of the enlarged board of appeal of the European Patent Office. Plant breeders' agent Graham Spencer says: "There is concern about the tomato and broccoli EU patent decisions. Essentially, the court has found that it is possible to patent varietal traits that are the product of natural biological processes. A patent would give more robust protection to those breeders who develop truly groundbreaking innovations.
"However, there are two problems. First is that no other breeder would be able to develop anything that has the same trait once patented, so we need some sort of compulsory licensing so that other breeders can access and improve new genetics while respecting and paying for the initial breeder's innovation.
"Second, patents are relatively expensive and probably beyond the means of the independent breeder, so we could end up with a situation where only the big companies can afford the strongest form of intellectual property, which seems inequitable to me."
The decision of the court will stand until such time as new EU legislation is brought forward or the existing legislation has been revised. Meanwhile, there appears to be a window in which breeders and innovators can take out patents.