As we’ve discussed before on this blog, cannabis can be and is being patented. It is important to remember that patents are a balance between competing social values. In classical legal theory, patents exist to encourage innovation by offering innovators a limited monopoly in return for making inventions, and eventually releasing them to the public. Although the common law disfavors restraints on trade such as patents, the prevailing theory is that granting a partial monopoly is justified by the social benefit of innovation. This is known as the contract model of patents. Whether this model really produces net social utility in particular cases, or ever, is hotly debated.
What isn’t debated is that the contract model fails if what is patented is not new. One of the biggest challenges of our patent system is determining what is “new enough” to reward with a patent. In general, the patent system examines novelty by comparing a claimed invention to existing products (known as the “prior art”) that are in the same or related fields. (In some patents, an invention must also be “non-obvious” in light of prior art. I don’t address obviousness here.) The practical problem is searching the historical haystack for the needle of relevant prior art. Searching the text of patents is relatively easy. But most of the world is not patented, and is more difficult to search; e.g., plants and other living things are not text-searchable. So how do we keep living prior art, such as cannabis strains, available to the public and not covered by the patent monopoly?
This question is being addressed by an Oregon non-profit, the Open Cannabis Project (“OCP”) (full disclosure: I am a legal advisor to the OCP). According to the OCP:
Cannabis is in danger of going the way the rest of agriculture has gone: toward monoculture, centralization, and restrictive patenting…The growing wave of legalization – and the intellectual property competition that comes with it – may have the unintended consequence of narrowing and restricting [cannabis] diversity….Open Cannabis Project (OCP) was established by industry leaders to resist these forces and to protect the genetic diversity of the Cannabis plant as well as the economic diversity of the cannabis industry….
To keep existing cannabis strains freely available to the public, the OCP is building an open-source repository of genetic data. This repository will serve as a source of prior art, useful to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“Patent Office”) and to the cannabis industry. Several labs have already pledged to contribute existing data to the repository, which is now being stored at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The OCP’s aim is to have a comprehensive set of genetic data for all cannabis varieties that are either naturally occurring or which have been previously available to the public. Either one of these conditions renders such varieties patentable.
The OCP holds great promise in its goal of keeping existing cannabis strains from coming under the control of one commercial entity or another. Some questions remain, however. For example, there is sometimes a mismatch between what the Patent Office considers when it reviews plant novelty, and what is available in genetic data. Hopefully the OCP and other cannabis industry players will be able to work with the Patent Office and perhaps Congress to address this and other concerns. Given the availability of cannabis patents and the size of the industry, there is a lot at stake.