What real piracy looks like: biopirate loses patent over century-old latinamerican staple crop

You hear a lot of talk about piracy in the developing world, about Nigerian markets filled with bootleg DVDs or Chinese iPod knockoffs.

But if you want to see what real piracy looks like, look at the bio-pirates, people and corporations who receive patents on common life-forms from the developing world (abetted by the sleepy and lackadaisical US Patent and Trademark Office) and then use their might and muscle to tax people for growing, consuming and exporting the plants they've lived with for centuries, on the grounds that these plants are now some rich person's property.

One such injustice is finally drawing to a close. US Patent Number 5,894,079, belonging Colorado's Larry Proctor, has been struck down. Proctor brought home some yellow beans from a Mexican market and filed for a patent on them in the 1990s, neglecting to tell the USPTO that the beans had been a dietary staple in latinamerica for over a century.

Proctor called them "Enola beans" and began to receive a toll on every Enola bean imported into the US from latinamerica. He used this money to fund a series of defenses to challenges on his patent. Because the patent system continues to enforce challenged patents while the gears of litigation turn, for every year that went by, Proctor found himself richer and better-able to fund his defense, while the people who had grown and eaten the beans for a century got poorer.

Proctor still has the right to appeal his patent up to the Supreme Court, of course.

CIAT officials said that, while they were concerned about the immediate economic impact of the Enola patent, more broadly, they worried that the patent would establish a precedent threatening public access to plant germplasm-the genetic material that comprises the inherited qualities of an organism-held in trust by CIAT and research centers worldwide.

The CIAT genebank is one of 11 maintained worldwide by the CGIAR, where crop materials such as seeds, stems and tubers are held in trust with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The genebanks house a total of about 600,000 plant varieties in publicly accessible collections, which are viewed as the pillar of global efforts to conserve agriculture biodiversity and maintain global food security. Plant breeders in both the public and private sectors are constantly seeking access to these resources to help them breed new types of crop varieties, particularly when existing varieties are threatened by pests or disease.

US Patent Office rejects US company's patent protection for bean commonly grown by Latin American farmers' (Thanks, Carolina!)


  1. Obviously Loosing the patent rights for a seed, how ignorant to even try to patent a seed or naturally occurring biologic when your name isn’t Monsanto.

  2. Has it been struck down retroactively? i.e. Can the importers create a class action suit to have tolls returned?
    The patent system is too old to effectively apply at the genome or software level, people like Larry Proctor prove that.

  3. What I don’t understand is how someone/company can patent something they had nothing to do with creating.

    Monsanto is a horrible company, foisting genetically modified soy beans that are modified to resist the pesticides Monsanto makes.

    I won’t eat or drink soy – too much of Monsanto playing God with soy…

  4. It’s a strange coincidence that my old boss, Dan Kevles, got a shout-out in the previous post (on eugenics) and is now working on a history of the topic outlined in this post, the patenting of biological organisms. Larry Proctor sounds like a real sleaze ball, but the issue gets more complicated and less clear-cut very quickly. For example, Starbucks has been trying to patent certain indigenous African coffee beans (boo!!!). But when these seeds are recognized as a commodity that can be owned (which has been the case since the plant patent act of 1930) one starts to wonder if a trust could be established to protect and enrich ethiopian coffee-growers, or another collective group. Would it be better if these things were seen legally as common resources and un-ownable? Perhaps, but if Monsanto and other corporations have the right to patent seeds they develop and enrich themselves, why should indigenous groups, peasants and struggling farmers miss out on the profits that come from commodification?

  5. #7, go back to #5. Its time for a complete re-architecture. The legacy intellectual property system is simply over its head and trying to kludge it around modern issues is a recipe for injustice and disaster.

    Lets take it down to brass tacks – what are our objectives, what are our tools, how do the variables interact? As you point out, the problem is endlessly complexified by the historical economic and political context that has co-emerged with it.

    Which implies that the re-architecture is going to have to be extensive.

  6. “Hello, yes, patent office”

    “Hi, I found these beans lying on the floor in mexico. Despite being completely edible, no-one there has ever grown or eaten the beans in the last 50,000-odd years. I’d like to patent them.”

    “What do you take me for, sir? An idiot?”

    So, why didn’t this happen?

  7. why is Latin America spelled “latinamerica” several times here? Is this new? Is it supposed to be some kind of challenge to colonialism in language?

    I don’t like it. I think it’s ungraceful and silly.

  8. @6, there is plenty of organic, non-GMO soy out there.

    Monsanto has it down to an art. Sell farmers insecticides and herbicides that’ll kill everything but their GMO crop. Sell farmers the GMO seed. If the farmer doesn’t buy again next year, go check his crop to see if he saved any seed and replanted or if any just happened to grow back naturally. Sue. While you’re there, check the neighboring farms for cross-pollination. Sue. Repeat.

  9. shadowfirebird @ 9:
    Because if you wear an Armani suit (as the Madoff/Ponzi scheme made abundantly clear), then everything you say is gospel and unquestioned.

  10. Patenting food and using the legal systems of rich countries to enforce said patents( read: the might makes right concept ) against humanity is an evil of epic proportions. It sets up a Stalin-esque control hierarchy that will only lead to horrific abuse.

    These kinds of ideas need to be purged from humanity. Oh, the irony in that.

  11. It’s not even that bad for Monsanto if all of this crap was outlawed. Even if they only sold a single batch of GMO seed to any given farmer, they still get to sell their “blades” — the pesticides themselves — which are consumables.

    From what I can see, this patent was informed by a pervasive American attitude that only American uses, laws, and copyrights count. To some, America is not the center of the universe, America *is* the universe!

    As for the CIAT, I just wanna know if they have my fuzzy peaches!

  12. This is slightly tangential, but I wonder if any farmers sued for growing soy/maize cross-pollinated from patented Monsanto stock have ever sued their neighbors for trespass. The trespassing pollen certainly caused a harm which was not de minimis.

  13. Or

    “real Intellectual Property Theft”

    Real piracy is what they do off the coast of Somalia

  14. Glad to hear there’s some positive resolution to this story, but when did we start calling it “latinamerica?”

  15. My hope is that Proctor does appeal this decision to the Supreme Court and loses. If everything works out just right it could create a legal precedent making it illegal to patent a life form.

  16. I’m also curious about why the article calls Latin America “latinamerica”. Where did that come from? Besides being just bad grammar, that seems a bit disrespectful, too.

  17. I would like to see someone genetically investigate some of the worst offenders, like this Larry Proctor, find certain genetic characteristics that he exhibits- that are unique to him, then file for a patent on that particular combination of genes without naming the person it came from in the patent application- just using some generic scientific lingo. Once awarded, that person could lay claim to everything Larry Proctor has achieved and possibly make him pay for “usage of patented gene combination” for the rest of his life.

  18. This is one of the many problems that occurs when we allow the patenting of life in general. The whole idea is f-ed up.

  19. Patent abuse and drug patents need to be front and center of any Pirate Party platform. It is not clear to most people that patents and copyrights are killing people. Not indirectly killing people, not sort-of kind-of killing people, but directly taking drugs out of the hands of the sick and food out of the mouths of the starving. Directly killing people.

    33 million people with HIV, most of whom can not get proper treatment because of prohibitions on the local manufacture of drugs which, due to overwhelming poverty, drug companies could not market locally anyway.

    Yes, I think the RIAA sucks, but at least they are not responsible for the deaths of millions.

    Now that is a catchy slogan.

  20. There’s a huge difference between patenting a seed that has existed as a regional cultivar for hundreds of years, and creating a brand new crop using millions of dollars of research and enforcing the patent.

  21. For me, the saddest thing about this article is the realization that, of the number of Americans reading it, a significant portion of them are probably admiring Larry Proctor and trying to think of something similar they could pull.

  22. If Latin America is too much to type, what with all those different case letters and spaces and all, why not just type LA? Oh, wait …

  23. Imagine using chinampas to save lake Chad.
    Chinampas could decrease the surface area of the lake making it deeper, create shade and a windbreak, and provide an alternative livelyhood for the people that rely on the lake.

    Just a thought . . .

  24. stumbled arcoss website …interesting, mind provolking, liked the pic of two hands with beans. Classic example of what happened to the weight of a gentlemans word….

  25. To receive a patent takes funding. Was this just a hoax that Larry Proctor used to get attention. Any proper educated person knows he would have had to generate this bean on his own and prove the bean to be safe for human consumption, then have funding to enforce the misuse of this product under his patenting. Can I patent water and get a monatary return for its use and profits from all who have profited….

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