Bangalore: An Indian entity’s four-year-old bid to patent basmati rice by securing the so-called geographical indication (GI) status for the aromatic grain has failed, making the premium variety vulnerable to unauthorized use of its name and patent claims elsewhere.
A seven-member consultative group headed by V. Ravi, the controller general of patents, design and trade marks, recently rejected an application for GI status for the rice variety filed by Karnal, Haryana-based Heritage Foundation in August 2004, citing flaws and lack of relevant data, said an official at the Union ministry of commerce and industry.
A GI is a product name associated with a certain region, and cannot be used by similar products from other regions. Champagne is one example of a GI.
The controller general of patents, design and trade marks is part of the ministry of commerce and industry and the issuing authority for GIs, which enjoy protection under the norms of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The Heritage Foundation is a trust mainly composed of rice millers and exporters.
Basmati, a slender, long-grained and fragrant variety of rice, is grown in Punjab and Haryana.
The GI status would identify it globally as unique for qualities exclusively attributed to the place of its origin and confer legal protection against unauthorized use of the name by other rice producers.
It would also mean that only the variety grown in India can qualify to be called ‘basmati’.
Under the law, producers or inventors can claim patent protection in member-countries of WTO only if these are first protected in the country of origin.
Following the consultative group’s decision, the Geographical Indications Registry in Chennai has issued a notice to the Heritage Foundation asking it to show cause why its application should not be rejected. The hearing on the notice will be held before Ravi, who is also the registrar of the Geographical Indications Registry. “There were discrepancies in the application filed by Heritage Foundation,” said the commerce ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media.
The Heritage Foundation could not provide technical details and scientific data relating to specification of the product, identity and the geographical area where it is grown, the official added.
The application was also flawed in terms of representation of basmati growers and farmers on the foundation, as it was represented mostly by mill owners and exporters, the official said.
Only an association of producers or an authority established under the law can apply for GI registration.
The Heritage Foundation can appeal the decision before the Intellectual Property (IP) Appellate Board. The foundation could not be reached for comment. The process of registering GI status for basmati has great significance for India, particularly after the US-based RiceTec Inc. was granted a controversial patent in September 1997 on ‘Basmati Rice Grains and Lines’.
“India cannot afford to delay the process of registering basmati as a GI in the light of the RiceTec episode,” said Anoop Narayanan, partner at law firm Majmudar and Co. that specializes in IP laws and technology issues. “We should be much more pro-active in deciding the registration of basmati as a GI,” he added.
Following India’s challenge, RiceTec surrendered four claims and withdrew another 11 out of a total 20 claims.
The US Patent and Trademark Office later prohibited RiceTec from using the term “basmati” and restricted the scope of the patent to three specific rice strains developed by the company that are unrelated to the varieties grown in India.
“Next to champagne, basmati is the most discussed GI all over the world,” said the official. The sparkling wine is exclusively produced in the Champagne region of France.
Along with Darjeeling tea, basmati was one of the main reasons why India set up the GI Registry in 2003. Darjeeling tea has since been granted GI status.
Basmati is a leading export earner for India. The country’s basmati rice exports jumped 43% to Rs3,548.51 crore in the 11 months to March, from Rs2,482 crore in the previous year, according to data compiled by the Union commerce ministry.
Ahead of a formal announcement rejecting Heritage Foundation’s application, the government has decided to empower the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) to protect farm and horticultural products such as basmati from attempts by other countries or producers to patent them.
The Union government has decided to amend the APEDA Act to enable the agency to register these products for protection using GIs.
The amendment has been cleared by the Union cabinet and will be introduced in Parliament soon, the official said.