Friday, February 1, 2013

Jatropha patents and intellectual property

Recently we performed a simple patent search for "Jatropha". The result was quite stunning! Lots of patents have been granted or are under application regarding the commercial exploitation of this interesting plant.

So let's group them a little bit:
  1. Superior (or special) Jatropha cultivars and methods to create the same
    Includes several hybrid developments by Nandan and an attempt by SG Biofuels Ltd. to patent a male-sterile trait in Jatropha. (More about the latter follows below)
  2. Genetic manipulation of certain traits
    Specifically Joil's approach to improve Jatropha oil quality through the transfer of a certain gene sequence from Castor. (We keep arguing that the same result can be achieved by conservative breeding, no GMO necessary)
  3. Mass propagation of Jatropha
    Mainly but not exclusively about tissue culture, i.e. protocols for in-vitro vegetative propagation.
  4. Detoxification of Jatropha
    Several combinations of chemical and/or mechanical separation processes can do the job.
  5. Jatropha-to-fuel processing methods
    Special methods for producing biodiesel and other fuels from Jatropha and Jatropha oil respectively.
We started checking patent regulations to find out what can really be patented in and around a plant or better, what cannot be patented. And I can tell you, that's one of the most confusing quagmires our great politicians ever created. Anyway, there are 2 globally common denominators we can highlight here:
  1. No wild plant or trait of a wild plant can ever be protected by a patent (or plant breeders rights), even if it was discovered for the very first time.
  2. Any variety protected by a patent or other plant breeder rights can be used by other breeders for further breeding without any obligations to license the original material.
Now we are specifically looking at an SG Biofuels patent application regarding a "female-only" trait in Jatropha curcas which would have serious consequences for our Jatropha Breeder 3.0 platform and others if ever granted. The patent application claims a male-sterile trait in Jatropha which is described as the result of expert hybrid breeding and not further qualified by DNA fingerprinting. If hybrid crossing, as claimed, would be the only way known of obtaining this important trait for breeders, everyone would be out of luck by now. Fortunately for us and the industry, Bionic Palm is in possession of several male-sterile Jatropha plants which are direct descendants of wild Jatropha plants at the center of origin in Guatemala and Mexico. No breeding or crossing was ever involved in their creation.

Therefore above exclusion no1 applies: a trait present in a wild plant can never be patented. We will have to wait and monitor carefully, if patent authorities in any of the many countries where this application is running in parallel will overlook the disclosure by Bionic Palm and grant the patent. In this case a formal complaint will have to be filed within 9 months.

In our opinion this little case story reveals how dangerous the IP arena has become for everyone. And how risky it is, not to constantly monitor new applications in your field of work. Patents today are viewed very differently by different organizations. While most simply and rightly just want to protect their development work, some seem to be eager making the accumulation of patented IP the core of their business, often benefiting from the work of others in the process.

A few weeks ago we had not expected, that Jatropha plant development has started becoming a playing field for IP hawks like Information Technology or Mobile Communication. But that definitely seems to be the case...