Patents came to be as a way to protect the rights of those working with discoveries and inventions, thus stimulating creativity, innovation and progress in a market-dominated economy. However, the ability for one company to own the rights of a specific intangible idea (or in this case, a plant’s variety), has led to considerable controversy in recent history. In the interest of keeping a level playing field, a move to keep information on cannabis public and patent-free has begun.
As we covered in a previous article, the number of cannabis patents being filled out is growing as steadily as the rate of new businesses emerging from this up-and-coming industry. And, while this might come as good news to many people since it’s a reflection of the industry’s own expansion, some sectors are growing increasingly concerned that extreme privatization of cannabis intellectual property could mean the doom of strain variety and fair market values.
The Problem with Big Agriculture
Let’s be clear, following a free-market logic, there’s nothing wrong about getting a patent for seeds. If a research organization spent time and effort investigating and developing a new variety for a plant, the patent is simply a method of securing the organization’s ROI and providing fair conditions for them to commercialize it, so they can continue with their research.
The problem with seed patents comes when the market finds itself monopolized by a few players. This is not only bad for smaller competitors, but also for consumers, because it dramatically decreases the offered variety available at the retail level.
Let’s take the cases of Corn and Soybean, the two largest crops in the country in terms of production value. As opposed to many internet rumors, there’s no private or government conspiracy forcing farmers to use GMO seeds from corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta or DowDupont. Farmers choose them simply because it works better for their businesses, as these seeds can ensure a larger harvest and keep pests to a minimum.
Leaving the many existing environmental issues aside, this type of business model has its negative effect on consumers, because, although there are 20.000 registered varieties of corn, the vast majority of the corn on the market comes from only six genetic lines. And though not many consumers are likely to check what variety of corn their nachos are made from, it’s quite presumable that a cannabis market dominated by 6 strains would receive many complaints.
Patented seeds from these type of agricultural giants also come with another caveat. Farmers sign a contract which allows them to use the purchased seed for only one farming season, risking a lawsuit if they save seeds for the upcoming year. The proprietary restrictions on the seeds are so ample, that they prohibit the farmers from breeding the plant to get more seeds, and of course, restricts them from making any genetic alterations.
Like this, the entire market ends up controlled by a few large corporations who ultimately decide which products people will end up consuming.
Weed Patents Take the Problem Even Further
Although cannabis-related patents are being issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office since 1942, it wasn’t until 2015 when the first patent for a plant containing significant levels of THC was granted.
Anyone who’s been smoking pot for more than a couple of years can easily testify that genetic research around cannabis has been going on for a lot longer than that. However, the illegal status of the plant and the fact that much of the research has been done off-the-record has prevented many original creations from being patented throughout the years. This leaves a window for anyone to get a utility patent for a strain, or even a family of strains as their own creation, simply because there’s no evidence of its prior existence.
Failing to obtain proper permission to use a seed coming from a patented strain, could make it illegal to even grow it at home. This means that if enough strains have been locked under patent, the number of strains available in the market, or even for self-cultivation, could diminish drastically.
The Open Cannabis Project
Becoming aware of this problems, and anticipating for a darker future, a group of industry professionals and activists got together with one simple mission: “to defend the richness and diversity of cannabis from overreaching patents”.
Following a similar approach to that of the open-source movement in software, the Open Cannabis Project is running a very special race. Their task is to gather proof of existing strains that is strong enough to keep the USPTO and patenting bodies from other countries from granting patents for this strains as if they were newly discovered. This is what’s legally denominated “evidence of prior art”, and by doing so, they’re keeping these strains as part of the public domain, preventing any company or person from claiming rights over them.
Beth Schechter, executive director at the OCP, told Green Rush Daily during an interview: “Our primary focus is documenting cannabis (including hemp) for intellectual property purposes, which right now is primarily composed of lab data. You can see our prototype at data.opencannabisproject.org, and a more stable version will be coming out soon. The more plants we can document, the better our chances of keeping patents off of plants that already exist in the public domain (which is the vast majority of them).”
By keeping cannabis information patent-free, the Open Cannabis Project is leveling the game for small farmers and home-growers, maintaining high-quality strains available for anyone to grow, without any kind of restrictions.
When discussing whether the intellectual privatization of cannabis could support the ever-growing rumors of Big Ag taking over the industry, Beth told us: “They are not separate concerns; they are quite linked. Specifically, seed privatization is a tool that may be used by big agriculture to maintain value for their seeds or other patented genetic materials in the context of a larger business plan.”
The Open Cannabis Project is not the only organization working for a patent-free cannabis industry.
Strainly is a Canadian platform that allows users to exchange marijuana seeds, clones and pollen, in order to work together towards preserving and spreading existing genetics. Medical Genomics is a genetics research lab that works on sequencing strain genetics in order to identify them, and is sharing their findings online via Kannapedia.
However difficult it might be to keep the cannabis industry from going the same way as the corn and soybean industries did, these efforts in trying to maintain cannabis information in the public domain are definitely a step in the right direction towards a more fair and decentralized market.