20 May 2007   |   News

The story of the basmati rice patent battle


Within the potentially rich but still largely unexplored lore of intellectual property (we are still waiting for an Isaiah Berlin of the history of IP), I came across a case that should be of considerable interest to the readers of this blog. It concerns a portfolio of US patents for basmati rice, the secular staple of the Indian continent.  

This portfolio is owned by Texas company, Rice Tec, and has been accumulated since 1997. It is part of a larger movement of seeking IPR on products, which are traded globally. According to Jennifer Moulin, deputy executive of a specialised NGO, “Just a few decades ago, there were no patents on rice. Today, more than 600 have been filed.”

It should be perfectly clear that what RiceTec patented was not the genome of basmati rice or a genetically developed variety (RiceTec makes the point that all its products are natural). It was simply a hybrid of basmati obtained from cross-breeding with an US long rice variety.

In its wisdom, the US Patent Office in September 1997 judged the result, named basmati 867, sufficiently novel to grant it patent #5,663,484, entitled “Basmati Rice Lines and Grains”, giving RiceTec exclusive rights to any basmati hybrid grown anywhere in the western hemisphere. Besides the highly questionable “novelty” of the invention (cross-breeding has been practised for centuries, including by Punjabi farmers, who produced a variety of basmati rice), what is striking is the inequity and asymmetry of the approach.

By including basmati name into the patent definition, RiceTec could claim wide-ranging rights over a traditional name, for which it did not acknowledge the origin or the originality, let alone the copyright. The practical impact of RiceTec’s patent would be to jeopardise the prospects of Indian basmati rice suppliers seeking to export to the US and other western countries

The award of the basmati rice patent rapidly triggered a wave of protests and judicial challenges, initially from the US- and Canada-based NGOs and grass-roots organisations, which called for boycott of RiceTec products.  Later, the Indian government approached the US Patent Office and urged it to re-examine the patent in order to protect the interests of India’s rice. It also took the issue to the World Trade Organization.

Rebranding

In 2002, as a result of judicial and political challenges, RiceTec withdrew 15 claims (out of 20), thus removing obstacles to Indian rice exports to the US. More significantly, the US Patent Office ordered that the title of the patent be changed to “Rice Lines Bas867, RT 1117 and RT1121”. RiceTec, which seeks to maintain the image of an ecological, all-natural-ingredients company, has rebranded its basmati-based products, Texmati, Jasmati and Kasmati, and studiously avoids any reference to its patent or patent litigation on its Web site,  

The Indian government, for its part, is trying to reinforce its protection of the basmati brand. Last April, it introduced IP legislation on Geographical Indication (GI) of the origin of agricultural products (similar to the French Appellation Controlée system used for wine but also for meat and poultry). Initial hopes that similar legislation would be introduced in Pakistan have been disappointed, perhaps because Pakistani exports are considerably below the India’s one. Nevertheless, India intends to proceed on its own.

Basmati rice story is a morality tale, with a developing country taking on a US company and US institutions and winning. For some anti-globalist activists, it has become a myth, to the point when they discuss it as if a patent battle were still under way, when in fact it was decisively settled five years ago.


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