End-of-the-year special: Nefarious doings in the table-grape industry

December 28, 2012

Grape ScrapeMaybe it is because there is not much else happening that is worth reporting on, but there is something about the end of the year that brings up quirky and unusual news stories.

“Quirky” is how I’d describe recent allegations of nefarious business practices in the table-grape industry, but maybe I am being a little flippant. To the parties involved here, there isn’t anything funny or lighthearted about this case.

The story I am talking about concerns the development of two grape varieties, the Scarlet Royal and the Autumn King, that were bred at the USDA’s San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in conjunction with the California Table Grape Commission.

According to a lawsuit filed by three commercial grape growers, the USDA let them grow these grape varieties and waited until the growers had come to rely on the revenue stream created by these grapes before seeking and obtaining patents on them and then demanding expensive royalty fees.

(The patent was licensed to the Table Grape Commission, so the Commission is the one that would receive the royalty payments, evidently.)

The grape growers are saying the USDA should not be allowed to have patents on these varieties, since they were widely available in the public arena for more than a year before the patents were sought. Material that is publicly available for over a year preceding a patent request isn’t patentable under traditional patent law.

The case is set for a five-to-seven day trial to begin May 14.

What caught my attention here was the issue of timing. The USDA hasn’t commented much on this case, as far as I can tell, but it is interesting to me that the grape growers think the USDA and Table Grape Commission essentially nurtured their economic dependence on these grapes so that when they were able to start demanding royalty payments, the grape growers did not really have the option of ceasing to grow the grapes. In other words, it sounds like the grape growers believe they’re being held hostage, and the instruments that let the USDA and Table Grape Commission hold them hostage are the patents on the grape varieties.

Come May, remind me to look back in on this story. I am interested in seeing what develops here.