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Know the 3 Ways Seed Can Be Legally Protected Before You Save It

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Saving seed is a concept that has been around as long as farming. We usually think of saving seed as setting back seed from a previous year’s harvest for planting in the following or future years. There is also the practice of setting seed aside from a prior year’s harvest, cleaning it, bagging it, and then selling it to other farmers. This practice is often referred to as “brown bagging.”

Some of the most common questions plant breeders get when visiting with farmers are “Can I save this seed, and if so how much?” and “Is this variety protected?” or “What is PVP?” Well, the answer to all these questions is quite simple: “It’s just downright complicated.”

In many cases, seed cannot be saved due to various laws or restrictions. However, there may be some cases in which seed may be saved for future use by the farmer or rancher who originally purchased the protected seed. In the United States, there are a number of legal forms of protecting seed and its use, including Plant Variety Protection (PVP), patents and contracts.

In this article, we will take a quick look at each of these methods of protecting seed. The following information is intended to provide a general overview of a very complex legal framework. It is in no way intended to provide legal advice, and specific questions should be addressed with legal counsel.

Farmer working with seed

How do you know if seed is protected?

Look at the label or the bag. The label or bag of a protected variety will usually read “Unauthorized Seed Multiplication Prohibited by Law.” The PVP symbol may also be used to denote a protected variety. If the seed is protected under a U.S. patent, the patent number may be listed on the label or bag. Also, talk to the seed dealer or company representative from whom you purchased the seed. They may require you to sign a limited use or technology agreement restricting or prohibiting the saving of seed.

1. Plant Variety Protection

Plant Variety Protection is one option for the protection of seed varieties. The developers of new varieties can use a PVP to restrict the marketing and sales of new varieties. A PVP allows the farmer or rancher who purchased the seed to save seed in certain cases for replanting on their own farm or on land they rent or lease. However, that same farmer or rancher may not sell saved seed to others without authorization. And even then, the owner of the variety can specify the amount of seed to be saved and the quality standards of the seed. They may also insist on cleaning the harvested seeds at their facility in order to maintain the integrity of the variety.

2. Patents

A patent is another common way of protecting seed. In the U.S., patents are administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A patent can protect a specific seed of a variety, hybrid, improved trait or a particular gene associated with a cultivar. A good example would be Roundup Ready seed. It is not unusual to see a plant variety protected by both a PVP and a patent. Most importantly, there is no exemption under current patent law that allows a farmer or rancher to save seed protected by a patent.

3. Contracts

In some instances, a seed company may require the farmer or rancher to sign a limited use or technology agreement before purchasing seed. This type of agreement may prohibit the saving of seed or specify the conditions under which the seed may be saved.

In many cases, accepting the terms of a contract or agreement could be as simple as opening the bag. Just remember, as all seed companies are different, each contract has its own terms. So, be sure to read the label and the agreement.

Mike Trammell
Former Senior Plant Breeder

Suresh Bhamidimarri, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor