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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Basmati battle boils on
Sowing rice in India
Critics said the patent could prevent Indian farmers exporting their crops
By the BBC's business reporter Mark Gregory

Campaigning groups claim to have won an important victory in their attempt to revoke intellectual property rights held by an American food company over a type of rice grown in India for several centuries.

They say the United States Patent Office has rejected most of the grounds put forward by the company to justify its legal claim over a variant of basmati rice.

The case has become one of the most celebrated examples of the friction between Western business corporations and developing countries over intellectual property rights.

Under World Trade Organisation rules patents over a product obtained in one country can potentially be enforced through the courts of all WTO member nations.

Rice Farmer
Poor farmers could even end up being obliged to pay royalties to the patent holder

The battle over basmati rice dates back to September 1997, when RiceTech, a small food technology company based in Alvin Texas patented Kasmati, a new type of basmati rice adapted to grow in American conditions.

However the Patent Office in the UK advises that "the patent granted does not give them authorisation to use the term basmati."

"The use of such terms is governed by other laws in the US and also by international agreements such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS)."

Copying row

RiceTech has always maintained that its only aim was to stop other US food companies from copying its product.

However, critics said the patent said could be misused to prevent Indian farmers exporting a traditional staple crop to the US.

In the worst case scenario, poor farmers could even end up being obliged to pay royalties to the patent holder on a product their forebears had grown for generations.

In the latest move, the US patent office has rejected 13 out of 20 grounds originally cited by Ricetech as the basis for its claim to intellectual property rights.

Four grounds had already been withdrawn by the company.

However, the company says that in a number of these cases it only needs to change the wording of its claim to meet regulations, and that in all instances it has the right to respond to the US regulatory body's objections.

The United States has long accused India of dragging its feet on introducing intellectual property rights, and sought assurances in the last round of trade talks that India would pass laws that would enforce US copyright laws in India.

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