Concern about patents

I’d love to contribute photos, but I’m concerned about the long term use of the information provided in iNaturalist.

I’ve heard and read that plants that indigenous communities have used as food and medicine for a LONG time one day get patented by drug companies, making it illegal for the communities to use the plant without permission from the patent holder!

Also, there is much talk about the huge number of unknown and unstudied plant and fungal species around the world, and their possible medicinal value, and possible $$monetary$$ value to drug companies.

So, can someone please tell me if the information posted to iNaturalist could be used by drug companies, either in the short term, or in the long term, in ways that would someday make the use of the species illegal?!

Thanks very much :)

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iNat doesn’t provide any data on how plants can be used, so I don’t see how it’s even possible, you can obscure observations if you think those spots should be protected.

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Wild plants can’t be patented. So you shouldn’t be concerned that someone will sue you because you took pictures of a plant that someone will own later.

Plants that were manipulated genetically to be a new variant to be cultivated can be patented, but I don’t think someone will sue you because you took a picture of it in some farm or something.

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As far as I know, patents are for new inventions, so a company could patent genetically modified plant they’d made (like GMO herbicide resistant cotton) or a unique hybrid they’d bred (like Knockout roses) or maybe the process for extracting a unique chemical from a plant, but they can’t just patent a wild species. The bigger concern is that as human populations grow, we’re putting crops or roads or shopping malls over unique habitats and causing extinction of the species that lived there. It’s probably better to know what we have and where it is so we can strategize about what to try to preserve.

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I think OP might be confusing or combining patent with copyright. They are two different things. A patent holder may exclude others from using, making, or selling an invention for a limited time. A patent on a plant would prevent you from reproducing that actual plant.

A copyright protects published and unpublished original works. A copyright holder may exclude others from using, selling, or distributing a work. If I take a photo of a plant, I determine who can use it and for what.

Someone can photograph a patented object without issue. The photographer then owns the copyright for the photo.

(For the record, I support patent reform and would like to see most things become open source because patents ultimately slow and stifle innovation.)

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The original poster isn’t concerned about being sued for photographing an organism or from having someone use their photograph.

I can’t imagine how a photograph that you post will lead to a company preventing other people from freely making use of the naturally-occurring organism because of a patent related to that organism. Wouldn’t the company already need to know that the organism was useful in some way, and be able to prove its usefulness? And if they could do that, wouldn’t they have already collected and examined the organism? So what value would your photograph (your documentation of the organism) be in this process?

However, that doesn’t mean that an organism can’t be patented–or that a patent on a function can’t result in restricted use of an organism (see links below). Also, one would need to look at patent law in every country (what is law in the U.S. or Europe isn’t law in other countries). One would also need to know what the laws will be in the future–as laws can change.
The status of patenting plants in the Global South
Biodiversity and patents: Overview of plants and fungi covered by patents

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Patents are for protecting creative inventions, not discoveries. You cannot patent a naturally occurring plant species and actually, for that matter, you can’t even patent an artificially bred plant variety. So the situation you describe, at least in the way you have written it, would seem to me not to be possible.

If the indigenous communities harvest the plants and then put them through a complex and innovative process of drying, distillation, fermentation, etc, to produce their medicine then there is a possibility that that manufacturing process could be patented by a drug company and commercially exploited. But even in that case, it would surprise me if the drug company were then to attempt to use their patent to stop the indigenous communities using the process for their own purposes. Doing so would likely end up giving legal acknowledgement to the fact that the indigenous communities were using the process before the patent application – and this would undermine the drug company’s entire claim to the patent, since one of the prerequisites to obtaining a patent is that the process is new and the applicant is its first inventor.

In any case, it doesn’t seem to me very likely that the simple species/location information shared on iNaturalist would be sufficient for a drug company to learn about a refining process. I am intrigued to know more details about the situations you’ve heard about where drug company patents have blocked indigenous communities from their longstanding practices.

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Welcome to the Forum!
You are referring to Biopiracy (https://theconversation.com/biopiracy-when-indigenous-knowledge-is-patented-for-profit-55589), which is a big issue for many Indigenous peoples. People from rich nations take plants without Indigenous permission, breed them, then sell it as a different variety or medicine. The Indigenous people get no benefit.
I don’t know the answer to your question. Observation locations can be obscured, but it might still be possible to find a general location from an observation. As in ‘oh, this plant x, which we are looking for can be found in area y, so lets comb through that area’. I don’t know enough about how the companies go about this, or whether they check biodiversity sites like iNat for clues. They may employ ‘prospectors’ who know the area and the traditions of the people whose methods may be dubious. It is an interesting question which might be difficult to answer.

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Our rooibos tea was patented in USA to be used as an ingredient in a cosmetic brand.
So yes it is a real concern.
Hoodia was used by Khoi San against hunger in a desert environment - now used as a ‘packaged pharmaceutical’ against Western obesity.

(And the discussion about COVID vaccines. Lots of public money used to make the vaccines. But now. The profits belong to pharmaceutical shareholders)

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Yes, that’s the sort of stuff. None of the ‘profits’ flow back to South Africa.
I don’t know too much about this, but are the Khoi San still able to use the native plants? I know they won’t receive monetary benefit, but is the plant use forbidden? I’m guessing they still are - the companies have learned how to grow it.

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Interesting story about that here. The plant is not patented, just one molecule derived from the plant. So the use of the species has not been made illegal in the way asked about by @ ojojoj.

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am i misunderstanding? i’m pretty sure people do that

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Our local rose nursery (Ludwig’s) patents named varieties.

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There is also a Canadian process for patenting plant varieties - https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/wr04589.html
There are also patented flours made from varieties that are bred by the Federal Government. Except for taxes, no benefits return to the Government or the the people who developed the wheat.

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The natural plant use may not be illegal, but none of the revenue returns to the place where it was found. @ojojoj is wondering if iNat could be used for companies who are looking for specific plants to exploit.

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Oh, you certainly can patent a variety–at least in some countries–even one that pops up without human intervention! My favorite variety of Salvia gregii is patented (last time I purchased them, the tag specifically stated that it was illegal to propagate it asexually).
https://www.wildflower.org/pressroom/wildflower-center-distribute-teresa-autumn-sage

https://patents.google.com/patent/US20050278815P1/en?q=salvia+teresa&oq=salvia+teresa

In the U.S. “Plants discovered in “the wild” or uncultivated state cannot be patented, because they occur freely in nature. But a plant discovered in a cultivated area can be patented, even if it is discovered in a cultivated area owned by someone else.” Other countries may have different laws. We can’t assume that everyone here is interested in U.S. law.
https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/plant-patents.html

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Add in that happy situation where (gardeners and) farmers may NOT propagate from their seeds or cuttings. GM soybeans came from your neighbour’s field? Ooops!
https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/propagation/propgen/plant-patents-and-propagation.htm

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Back in the early 90’s, nematodes were patented for biocontrol of mole crickets. My understanding is that it was a “use” patent.

Similar sounding announcement https://bionema.com/bionema-secures-new-patent-for-novel-biocontrol-kit/

Should we try to stop patents related to drug research? Maybe. How do you feel about new drugs to fight diseases that are harming or killing large numbers of people? Drug companies only make drugs because it makes them money. Should they steal intellectual property? No. Can they protect intellectual property they develop? Sure.

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Drug companies do patent the drugs they produce from plants, making money that usually doesn’t get back to the people who knew the plants. The companies cannot stop people from using the plants they way they always did.

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All this matter is ruled by the Nagoya Protocol, an interesting read, but not easy at all:
https://www.cbd.int/abs/

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