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Plant Patents — A Different Kind of Invention
I always find it interesting when a conversation comes up about the fact that new plants can be considered inventions, and hybridizers can get royalties just like any other patent owner. The reaction is usually either of surprise, lack of belief, “you’re pulling my leg”, or a combination of the aforementioned.
As of today more than 25,000 plant patents have been issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office. In some cases, these patents have made the breeder famous (at least in Horticulture and gardening circles) and in very selected cases, fairly wealthy.
Since Benjamin Franklin, the United States has rewarded innovation by granting inventors patents, which help them monetize their inventions. The system was successful beyond old Ben’s wildest dreams, and is the main reason why the US is still the world leader in innovation on pretty much any major front.
In 1933 Congress passed the Plant Patent Act which granted the same rights to hybridizers who up until then had created new plants only to see them replicated and sold by others within a couple of years. The first Plant Patent was granted to…surprise surprise, a rose. More than 80 years after its introduction, The New Dawn Rose (shown below) is still very popular today.
In order to receive a patent, a new plant needs to be “new, distinct, uniform and stable” according to the USPTO. It also needs to be asexually reproduced. Seeds do not apply, as they are subject to a different type of patent.
For the first 50 years or so after the law was established, there were less than 300 plant patents that were granted every year. However, since 1985, the number of plant patents has more than tripled, and about 1,200 plant patents were applied for in 2012 alone (the last year the numbers are available).
I could not find the first patent of Conard-Pyle, but I think it was either the third or fifth to be granted. Additionally, there are at least ten patents for plants we introduced that brought huge rewards to the folks who hybridized them. The Peace Rose (shown below) from the House of Meilland, Blue Girl and subsequent Ilex hybrids from Ms. Margaret Meserve, and last but not least, ‘Radrazz’ and the other roses known under their commercial Trademark, The Knock Out® Family of Roses.
In the late 1940’s, patents like Peace convinced Francis Meilland about the necessity to create a similar system in Europe. Today, the majority of the world has similar systems aimed to protect the rights of the plant breeders.
Of course, a patent on a new plant will not make its inventor as rich or famous as the person who invented the light bulb, but they are still contributing to the betterment of our lives in their own ways.