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Plant Patents

From the United States Patent & Trademark Office:

What is a plant patent?

A plant patent is granted by the Government to an inventor (or the inventor’s heirs or assigns) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. The grant, which lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the application, protects the inventor’s right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced. This protection is limited to a plant in its ordinary meaning:

  • A living plant organism which expresses a set of characteristics determined by its single, genetic makeup or genotype, which can be duplicated through asexual reproduction, but which can not otherwise be “made” or “manufactured.”
  • Sports, mutants, hybrids, and transformed plants are comprehended; sports or mutants may be spontaneous or induced. Hybrids may be natural, from a planned breeding program, or somatic in source. While natural plant mutants might have naturally occurred, they must have been discovered in a cultivated area.
  • Algae and macro fungi are regarded as plants, but bacteria are not.

The information presented in this publication is tailored to apply to and is limited to patents on asexually reproduced plants. While the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) does accept utility applications having claims to plants, seed, genes, etc., such practice is beyond the scope of this publication. General information regarding utility practice can be obtained by calling PTO Information Services Division at 1-800-786-9199, or from a registered patent attorney. Intellectual property protection for true breeding seed reproduced plant varieties is offered through the Plant Variety Protection Office, Beltsville, Md., which should be contacted for information regarding intellectual property protection for such crops.

Provisions and Limitations

Patents to plants which are stable and reproduced by asexual reproduction, and not a potato or other edible tuber reproduced plant, are provided for by Title 35 United States Code, Section 161 which states:

Whoever invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of title. (Amended September 3, 1954, 68 Stat. 1190).

The provisions of this title relating to patents for inventions shall apply to patents for plants, except as otherwise provided.

As noted in the last paragraph of the statute, the plant patent must also satisfy the general requirements of patentability. The subject matter of the application would be a plant which developed or discovered by applicant, and which has been found stable by asexual reproduction. To be patentable, it would also be required:

  • That the plant was invented or discovered and, if discovered, that the discovery was made in a cultivated area.
  • That the plant is not a plant which is excluded by statute, where the part of the plant used for asexual reproduction is not a tuber food part, as with potato or Jerusalem artichoke.
  • That the person or persons filing the application are those who actually invented the claimed plant; i.e., discovered or developed and identified or isolated the plant, and asexually reproduced the plant.
  • That the plant has not been sold or released in the United States of America more than one year prior to the date of the application.
  • That the plant has not been enabled to the public, i.e., by description in a printed publication in this country more than one year before the application for patent with an offer to sale; or by release or sale of the plant more than one year prior to application for patent.
  • That the plant be shown to differ from known, related plants by at least one distinguishing characteristic, which is more than a difference caused by growing conditions or fertility levels, etc.
  • The invention would not have been obvious to one skilled in the art at the time of invention by applicant.

Where doubt exists as to the patentability of a specific plant, a qualified legal authority should be consulted prior to applying to assure that the plant satisfies statutory requirements and is not exempted from plant patent protection.

Inventorship

Because there are two steps which constitute invention in plant applications, there may be more than one inventor. An inventor is any person who contributed to either step of invention. For example, if one person discovers a new and distinct plant and asexually reproduces the plant, such person would be a sole inventor. If one person discovered or selected a new and distinct plant, and a second person asexually reproduced the plant and ascertained that the clone(s) of the plant were identical to the original plant in every distinguishing characteristic, the second person would properly be considered a co-inventor. If either step is performed by a staff, every member of the staff who performed or contributed to the performance of either step could properly be considered a co-inventor. Thus, a plant patent may have a plurality of inventors. However, an inventor can direct that the step of asexual reproduction be performed by a custom propagation service or tissue culture enterprise and those performing the service would not be considered co-inventors.

Asexual Reproduction

Asexual reproduction is the propagation of a plant to multiply the plant without the use of genetic seeds to assure an exact genetic copy of the plant being reproduced. Any known method of asexual reproduction which renders a true genetic copy of the plant may be employed. Acceptable modes of asexual reproduction would include but may not be limited to:

Rooting Cuttings Grafting and Budding
Apomictic Seeds Bulbs
Division Slips
Layering Rhizomes
Runners Corms
Tissue Culture Nucellar Embryos

The purpose of asexual reproduction is to establish the stability of the plant. This second step of the invention must be performed with sufficient time prior to application for patent rights to allow the thorough evaluation of propagules or clones of the claimed plant for stability thus assuring that such specimens retain the identical distinguishing characteristics of the original plant.

Rights Conveyed by a Plant Patent

Grant of a patent for a plant precludes others from asexually reproducing or selling or using the patented plant. A plant patent is regarded as limited to one plant, or genome. A sport or mutant of a patented plant would not be considered to be of the same genotype, would not be covered by the plant patent to the parent plant, and would, itself, be separately patentable, subject to meeting the requirements of patentability.  See “Utility Vs. Plant Patents” for more information on this.  A plant patent expires 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. As with utility applications, when the plant patent expires, the subject matter of the patent becomes public domain.