What Are Plant Patents?
Plant patents protect plants from being copied or reproduced without permission. These patents were created to prevent farmers from growing similar crops year after year with little improvement. They are granted to inventors and breeders who have successfully bred new varieties of plants that improve upon existing ones. The patent holder must prove their invention was not already known before they filed for it, but there is no requirement that they actually show that their invention was better than any other variety. Patent holders can charge a fee for using their patent rights, but this does not necessarily mean that they will sue anyone who tries to copy them.
There are two types of plant patents: utility patents and plant patents. Utility patents cover all kinds of plants such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts etc., while plant patents apply only to certain kinds of plants.
For example, a tomato plant patent covers tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and watermelons. A strawberry plant patent covers strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. There are some exceptions to these rules though; for instance a tobacco plant patent does not cover cigarettes (or anything else) and a peanut plant patent does not cover peanuts (or anything else).
The United States Patent Office has been issuing patents since 1790. Since then the number of patents issued has increased dramatically. It took the first seventy-six years to reach 5,000 patents, but only fifty years to get to 50,000.
Today, around 50 patents are granted on average every business day.
Even with the high number of patents being issued every year, getting one is not a sure thing. In fact, it has been estimated that only about half of all patent applications are approved by the Patent Office. Of course, not all patents are the same.
The approval rate varies from industry to industry with some being much easier to get than others.
Patented plants have been around for a long time and have been used to protect crops for as long as crops have been grown. The very first plant patents were quite different than they are today though. In colonial times farmers were encouraged to breed new crops because they provided economic benefits to the communities that grew them.
As a result, the very first plant patents were really nothing more than gifts from the government. During the 1700s and early 1800s most of these patents were given to farmers who had created new varieties of corn.
The very first patent for a new plant variety that was available to anyone who wanted it, as opposed to a singular farmer, was a type of wild sunflower. The Pueblo Indians of what is now New Mexico developed the variety over hundreds of years as part of their culture’s tradition of growing and using sunflowers. These seeds spread all over the southwest and were quite popular with farmers in Arkansas before the Civil War.
A horticulturist by the name of John Torrey began selling them to nurseries in 1822 and realized he could make a lot more money selling the seeds if he got some kind of legal protection from competitors. In 1855 the US Patent Office granted his request and he became the first person to hold a plant patent.
Even some familiar plants like the apple have a long history with the US Patent Office. George Washington is often given credit for having over 100 varieties of apples trees on his property, but he didn’t actually create any of them. He purchased most of them from nurseries that obtained the trees from Europe.
That being said, he did create a new variety of apple tree by cross-breeding different varieties and in 1796 he was granted a patent for this new tree. This was the first time a living organism other than a plant had been given a patent.
In addition to plants and trees, a number of different food items have also been patented. Most of these are artificial products rather than naturally occurring ones. One of the earliest was a patent granted to John Harvey for “Manufactured Ice” in 1855.
For most of human history iced drinks were a rare treat only available on very hot days due to the amount of labor required to produce enough ice for a single drink. In the 18th and 19th centuries inventors began experimenting with machines to speed up the process. In most cases these contraptions didn’t work very well or weren’t cost effective. In New England the demand for ice was so high and the natural sources so limited that businessmen would ship it in from New York. Harvey began experimenting with ways to speed up the production of artificial ice and his methods were eventually used to build a factory in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1830s. Within a decade dozens of ice factories had opened up in the United States and in 1844 he began selling shares of his company to the public. With this financial help he was able to greatly expand his factory and in 1855 he received a patent on his artificial method of making ice.
Another patent related to food technology was granted to a farmer from Illinois by the name of Henry Parson in 1867. Parsons had invented an apple peeler that could remove the skin from the fruit in a single motion. Most people at the time peeled their apples by hand, which was extremely time consuming.
Parsons’ machine solved this problem and allows apples to be eaten much like they are today.
The final patent related to food is a little different from the others in that it involves a method for creating a completely new food, rather than a new way of modifying an existing one. In 1894 23-year-old Benjamin Eisenstadt took out a patent on a method of making sweetened condensed milk. At the time it was common for trains to carry cans of milk in their passenger cars so that passengers would have fresh milk while traveling.
The problem with this is that the temperature in the car would often fluctuate causing the quality of the milk to deteriorate. This 23-year-old inventor came up with a method of sealing the cans and then submerging them in boiling water after they had been sealed. This stabilized the milk and prevented it from spoiling, even while transported over long distances.
While these four are the only food-related patents to make it into the pantheon of “The First…” accolades, they certainly aren’t the only food related patents.
Another popular patent was for a method of creating shredded cheese, which was granted to G. Eckert in 1924. Even our favorite candy bars have at least two patents related to their invention. The Nestle Crunch was invented by George Anderson in 1925 when he couldn’t fit enough nuts into a bar, but still wanted to add a crunchy element. It was so popular that it’s now the company’s best selling product. The M&M’s candy (or MARS’ as they were known at the time) was invented in 1941 by a man named Steve and his brother Bob. The pair were experimenting with different methods of marketing coffee and almost left their fathers company over it. Happily for everyone involved they decided to give him the prototype — an accident resulting from pouring chocolate onto a marble slab and trying to fix it — and it was so well received that it became the company’s latest product.
Sources & references used in this article:
Method and receptacle for propagating plants by MA Raines – US Patent 2,431,890, 1947 – Google Patents
Rooting method for vegetative plant propagation of hard-to-root plants by M Byrne – US Patent 5,584,140, 1996 – Google Patents
Plant propagating devices by W Robert – US Patent 2,870,575, 1959 – Google Patents