The Enola bean patent case demonstrates that intellectual property challenges are not a viable means of “correcting” abuses in the patent system. Just about everyone agrees that the Enola bean patent is technically invalid – the bean, in fact, is genetically identical to a pre-existing Mexican bean variety that was previously known and grown in the United States. The patent is also morally unacceptable because it is predatory on the knowledge and genetic resources of indigenous peoples and farming communities, who are the true innovators of Mexico’s yellow beans. The real crime is that, despite the legal challenge, the US patent system has allowed the patent owner to use bureaucratic delays and diversion to legally extend his exclusive monopoly on a bean variety of Mexican origin for over 6 years (and potentially more) – that’s nearly one third of the 20-year patent term. In essence, the system enables holders of unjust patents to monopolize markets and destroy competition – neither farmers nor firms can tread water for 6 years waiting for the outcome of a protracted patent challenge. In recent years many people have inquired, whatever happened to the Enola bean patent challenge? Why has the US Patent & Trademark Office (US-PTO) taken so long to reach a decision? Here’s an update on the case:
Almost six years ago, ETC Group (then RAFI) denounced the Enola bean patent as “Mexican bean biopiracy” and demanded that the patent be legally challenged and revoked. We requested that FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) investigate the patent as a likely violation of their 1994 Trust agreement that obliges them to keep designated crop germplasm in the public domain and off-limits to intellectual property claims. It was five years ago that the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, a CGIAR center), with support from FAO, filed an official challenge of the now infamous Enola bean patent at the US-PTO in Washington.