When most people think of patents, they think of new machines, new medicines, or improved manufacturing processes. These inventions are protected by “utility patents.” Some people may also be familiar with “design patents,” which protect a novel ornamental design, such as the front grill of a luxury car. But, there is a third class of patents with which most people are unfamiliar, “plant patents.” As the name suggests, plant patents protect new plant varieties, such as a new strain of wine grape vine.
Not all plants are eligible for patent protection, however. United States Code, Title 35, Section 161 provides that: “[w]hoever 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 therefore…”
There are some key words in that statute, most importantly, “asexually reproduces.” Asexually propagated plants are not grown from seeds, but by rooting of cuttings, layering, budding, grafting, inarching, etc. Plants capable of sexual reproduction are not excluded from patent eligibility if they are also capable of being reproduced asexually. “Tuber propagated plants” are those that are grown from short, thickened portions of an underground branch, such as the Irish potato or the Jerusalem artichoke. The policy reason for excluding these asexually produced plants is that they are propagated by the same part of the plant that is sold as food.
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