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PATENTS: The story of the basmati rice patent battle

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  The story of the basmati rice patent battle
SOURCE: Science Business, UK
AUTHOR: Charles Goldfinger
DATE:   21.05.2007

The story of the basmati rice patent battle

Within the potentially rich but still largely unexplored lore of  
intellectual property (we are still waiting for an Isaiah Berlin of  
the history of IP), I came across a case that should be of  
considerable interest to the readers of this blog. It concerns a  
portfolio of US patents for basmati rice, the secular staple of the  
Indian continent.

This portfolio is owned by Texas company, Rice Tec, and has been  
accumulated since 1997. It is part of a larger movement of seeking IPR  
on products, which are traded globally. According to Jennifer Moulin,  
deputy executive of a specialised NGO, ,,Just a few decades ago, there  
were no patents on rice. Today, more than 600 have been filed."

It should be perfectly clear that what RiceTec patented was not the  
genome of basmati rice or a genetically developed variety (RiceTec  
makes the point that all its products are natural). It was simply a  
hybrid of basmati obtained from cross-breeding with an US long rice  

In its wisdom, the US Patent Office in September 1997 judged the  
result, named basmati 867, sufficiently novel to grant it patent  
#5,663,484, entitled "Basmati Rice Lines and Grains", giving RiceTec  
exclusive rights to any basmati hybrid grown anywhere in the western  
hemisphere. Besides the highly questionable "novelty" of the invention  
(cross-breeding has been practised for centuries, including by Punjabi  
farmers, who produced a variety of basmati rice), what is striking is  
the inequity and asymmetry of the approach.

By including basmati name into the patent definition, RiceTec could  
claim wide-ranging rights over a traditional name, for which it did  
not acknowledge the origin or the originality, let alone the  
copyright. The practical impact of RiceTec's patent would be to  
jeopardise the prospects of Indian basmati rice suppliers seeking to  
export to the US and other western countries

The award of the basmati rice patent rapidly triggered a wave of  
protests and judicial challenges, initially from the US- and  
Canada-based NGOs and grass-roots organisations, which called for  
boycott of RiceTec products. Later, the Indian government approached  
the US Patent Office and urged it to re-examine the patent in order to  
protect the interests of India's rice. It also took the issue to the  
World Trade Organization.


In 2002, as a result of judicial and political challenges, RiceTec  
withdrew 15 claims (out of 20), thus removing obstacles to Indian rice  
exports to the US. More significantly, the US Patent Office ordered  
that the title of the patent be changed to "Rice Lines Bas867, RT 1117  
and RT1121". RiceTec, which seeks to maintain the image of an  
ecological, all-natural-ingredients company, has rebranded its  
basmati-based products, Texmati, Jasmati and Kasmati, and studiously  
avoids any reference to its patent or patent litigation on its Web site,

The Indian government, for its part, is trying to reinforce its  
protection of the basmati brand. Last April, it introduced IP  
legislation on Geographical Indication (GI) of the origin of  
agricultural products (similar to the French Appellation Controle  
system used for wine but also for meat and poultry). Initial hopes  
that similar legislation would be introduced in Pakistan have been  
disappointed, perhaps because Pakistani exports are considerably below  
the India's one. Nevertheless, India intends to proceed on its own.

Basmati rice story is a morality tale, with a developing country  
taking on a US company and US institutions and winning. For some  
anti-globalist activists, it has become a myth, to the point when they  
discuss it as if a patent battle were still under way, when in fact it  
was decisively settled five years ago.

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