A somewhat confusing patent application by SG Biofuels Ltd (KY), a Grand Cayman Islands company, has been published recently in several versions. Here is the official European link:
Several further international applications exist and a provisional US application No. 61/292751, dated January 6, 2010 is quoted for priority rights.
Explaining all the weird technicalities of international plant patents and the differences between US and European rules is not the purpose of this article. However, it should be noted, that the claims between the European and the US version differ substantially, obviously in order to adjust them to the corresponding requirements and take maximum advantage of them. As priority based on the US provisional application is claimed also for the European version the differing claims might become a serious technical hurdle for the issuance of a European patent.
On a side note, if you want to know more about patenting plants in Europe have a look at this excellent presentation “Latest Developments in Patenting Plant Inventions in Europe”.
Putting law and regulations aside, lets analyze the claims a little bit:
- “A Jatropha curcas plant characterized by an inflorescence with only female flowers.” is the first central claim. Later on they call this the “FO trait” in an obvious attempt to avoid the common term “male sterile”. So in essence, this seems to be a business idea, to claim IP rights to all male sterile Jatropha plants and their use! It is absolutely possible within US and European rules to patent a certain plant trait. Now lets see, an invention needs to be “novel and inventive teaching”. That’s why they claim, their “FO trait” somehow emerged during their breeding activities. That would definitely make it “novel and inventive”. However, later they also claim the plant with the “FO trait” to be a homozygous (relative to the trait) and an inbred line. That is technically impossible for a male sterile, at least if it derives from an “novel and inventive” cross.
- Further, a wild plant can never be patented, even if it is discovered for the first time. That is also true for all traits of said wild plant. As we want to keep ourselves and fellow Jatropha breeders safe for the future, we have no choice but to disclose: Bionic Palm is in the possession of several male sterile Jatropha plants deriving directly from seeds that have been collected from wild plants at the center of origin. Specifically one of those plants has been grown from seeds collected from a wild Jatropha curcas L. bush in the South-West of Guatemala. We are in the possession of exact GPS coordinates of the mother plants location. The behavior of that male sterile plant is completely identical with anything described as the “FO trait” in the SGB patent application. (In the next few days we will publish a document which will fully disclose all our findings regarding our male sterile accession from Guatemala origin)
- Further, the SGB patent claims ownership over a most common and widely taught production technology for F1 hybrid seeds: a planting pattern for a seed farm combining a male sterile accession with another inbred superior accession for natural pollination. The only part “inventive and novel” in this claim is, that such a technology is combined with the word “Jatropha”. Other than that this could be copied straight from a breeders handbook! This seems to be an attempt to force major parts of a future Jatropha industry into paying royalties to SGB in case the application would be successful.
- And finally it is very interesting to see the new direction the claims in the US version are taking. Here the patent application seeks control over all derived fuels from Jatropha seeds originally produced using the above method. That is driven by the idea, that where ever in the world the seeds have been grown, once the product enters the US and the seed production method applies royalties can be forced on the importer.
What can be the purpose of an otherwise meaningless patent like this one?
I want to leave the answer to this question to the reader and just ask 2 simple questions:
- Is the ailing Jatropha industry ready for patent wars as we see them unfolding in the mobile handset or the software industries?
- Is SGB trying to follow a Monsanto principle? Roundup and Canola are still well known at least to the agric experts…
What do we at Bionic Palm intend to do?
Well, we will do what ever we can to keep these applications to be turned into patents. We believe, publicly disclosing the ownership of above mentioned wild male sterile from Guatemala should do the trick. But we will also make sure, that this disclosure document will get to all patent offices concerned.
We will definitely keep you posted on any further developments.