from the literally-above-the-law dept
Last month we wrote about the strange case of unpatentable plants becoming patentable in Europe thanks to a decision from the European Patent Office's Enlarged Board of Appeal. That cleared the way for companies to obtain such patents, and according to this post on the "no patents on seeds" site -- I think you can probably work out where its biases lie -- that's about to happen:
the European Patent Office (EPO) is about to grant 30 patents on plants derived from conventional breeding to Monsanto and its affiliated companies. The Swiss company Syngenta can expect to receive around a dozen patents very soon. Many of the patents claim vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, carrots and lettuce.
Leaving aside the important question of whether it should be possible to obtain patents on plants, there are some other issues. For example, Monsanto is currently trying to acquire Syngenta. Although its initial offer of $45 billion was turned down, the view seems to be that Monsanto will go higher because it needs Syngenta's broad portfolio of products to address the growing concerns over glyphosate, which lies at the heart of much of its range. According to a recent report, Monsanto is willing to divest itself of all of Syngenta's "seeds and genetic traits businesses as well as some overlapping chemistry assets to win regulatory approval", but it's not clear whether that would include patents on plants. If it didn't, all of the imminent plant patents mentioned above might end up with Monsanto, which would represent a dangerous concentration of power in this important new area.
The more serious problem concerns the EPO. The decision to extend patentability to plants was taken by the EPO's Enlarged Board of Appeal, which should raise conflict of interest concerns, since the EPO is funded by patent fees. That wouldn't be a serious problem if there were a higher court to which appeals could be made. But as the EPO told Intellectual Property Watch:
Decisions made by the Enlarged Board of Appeal cannot be challenged before another judiciary.
One body that does have the power to revise EPO decisions is the Administrative Council of the EPO, but it is made up largely of senior patent officials from the 40 or so member states of the EPO, and so it is naturally pro-patent and thus unlikely to interfere with extensions to patentability. In fact, there is no democratically-elected body at all that could force the EPO to change its policy on anything. Worse, the EPO is literally above national laws, since its offices enjoy diplomatic immunity of the kind given to embassies. As Wikipedia explains it:
The premises of the European Patent Office enjoy a form of extraterritoriality. In accordance with the Protocol on Privileges and Immunities, which forms an integral part of the European Patent Convention under Article 164(1) EPC, the premises of the European Patent Organisation, and therefore those of the European Patent Office, are inviolable. The authorities of the States in which the Organisation has its premises are not authorized to enter those premises, except with the consent of the President of the European Patent Office.
While that's the case -- and there's very little prospect of it changing in the short-term -- extensions of patentability to non-patentable matter are not just likely to happen, but will be well-nigh impossible to reverse.