Delhi High Court Strikes Down Section 24(5) of the Plant Varieties Act as Unconstitutional
On December 2, 2016, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 24(5) of the Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 (Act) as unconstitutional in Prabhat Agri Biotech Ltd. et al. v. Registrar of Plant Varieties. As will be discussed in more detail below, the Court held that Section 24(5) violated Section 14 of the Constitution of India. Specifically, the Court held that this section of the Act gave unbridled power to the Register, who was not required to have a legal background or possess any legal expertise, to grant interim relief to a breeder against any abusive third party act occurring during the pendency of an application for registration of a variety.
The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 (Act) was passed in 2001 and went into effect in November 2005. The stated rational of the Act is to establish a system for the protection of plant varieties, rights of farmers and plant breeders as well as encourage the development of new plant varieties in India. Additionally, the Act is intended to provide the protection needed to facilitate the growth of the seed industry in India, ensure the availability of high quality seeds and planting material for farmers as well as protect plant breeders’ rights for accelerated agricultural development within the country.
Section 12 of the Act establishes the Plant Varieties Registry (Registry) to facilitate the registration of varieties while also providing for the appointment of as many registrars (Registrars) as necessary to allow for the registration of such varieties. Section 13 of the Act provides for the maintenance by the Registry of a register called the “National Register of Plant Varieties” (Register). The purpose of the Register is to record the names of all registered plant varieties along with the names and addresses of the respective breeders, the right of such breeders in their registered varieties, the particulars of the denomination of each registered variety, its seed or other propagating material along with specification of the salient features and any other information which may be required for registration of the variety.
Section 2 of the Act provides a number of definitions of key terms that are used throughout the Act. For example, Section 2(za) defines a “variety” as a “plant grouping except a microorganism within a single botanical taxon of the lowest known rank, which can be:
(i) Defined by the expression of the characteristics resulting from a given genotype of that plant grouping;
(ii) Distinguished from any other plant grouping by expression of at least one of said characteristics; and
(iii) Considered as a unit with regard to its suitability for being propagated, which remains unchanged after such propagation,
and includes propagating material of such variety, extant variety, transgenic variety, farmers’ variety and essentially derived variety.”
Section 2(i) defines an “essentially derived variety”. Specifically, this section states that a variety (the initial variety), shall be said to be essentially derived from such initial variety when it:
(i) “is predominantly derived from such initial variety, or from a variety that itself is predominantly derived from such initial variety, while retaining the expression of the essential characteristics that results from the genotype or combination of genotype of such initial variety;
(ii) is clearly distinguishable from such initial variety; and
(iii) conforms (except for the differences which result from the act of derivation) to such initial variety in the expression of the essential characteristics that result from the genotype or combination of genotype of such initial variety.”
Section 2(j) defines “extant variety” as a variety available in India which is:
(i) “notified under section 5 of the Seeds Act, 1966 (54 of 1966); or
(ii) farmers’ variety; or
(iii) a variety about which there is common knowledge; or
(iv) any other variety which is in public domain”.
Section 2(k) defines “farmer” as any person who:
(i) “cultivates crops by cultivating the land himself; or
(ii) cultivates crops by directly supervising the cultivation of land through any other person; or
(iii) conserves and preserves, severally or jointly, with any person any wild species or traditional varieties or adds value to such wild species or traditional varieties through selection and identification of their useful properties.”
Section 2(l) defines a “farmers’ variety” as a variety which:
(i) “has been traditionally cultivated and evolved by the farmers in their fields; or
(ii) is a wild relative or land race of a variety about which the farmers possess the common knowledge”.
A variety can be registered by submission of an application to the Registrar. According to Section 16 of the Act, an application can be submitted by any “person”. A “person” includes:
(i) any person claiming to be the breeder of the variety; or
(ii) any successor of the breeder of the variety; or
(iii) any person being the assignee of the breeder of the variety in respect of the right to make such application; or
(iv) any farmer or group of farmers or community of farmers claiming to be the breeder of the variety; or
(v) any person authorized in the prescribed manner by a person specified under items (i) – (iv) to make application on his behalf; or
(vi) any university or publicly funded agricultural institution claiming to be the breeder of the variety.
Section 18 describes the specific technical and other information that must be included in each application. According to Section 15, once an application has been submitted, a variety can be registered only if it satisfies the criteria of novelty, distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. During the examination process, the application can be amended if requested by the Registrar. Once an application is accepted, it is published for opposition. If no opposition is filed or if an opposition is rejected, the Registrar will register the variety and issue a certificate. If the certificate issued is for an essentially derived variety, the certificate is valid for nine years from the date of registration for trees and vines and six years from the date of registration for all other plants (which is renewable). However, , the total period of validity of a registration cannot exceed:
(i) eighteen years from the date of registration for trees and vines;
(ii) fifteen years from the date of the notification of that variety by the Central Government under section 5 of the Seeds Act, 1966 (54 of 1966) for extant varieties; and
(iii) fifteen years from the date of registration of a variety in all other cases.
According to Section 28(1) of the Act, a certificate confers an exclusive right on the breeder or his successor, agent or licensee, to produce, sell, market, distribute, import or export the variety. One interesting provision of the Act, which will be discussed in more detail below, is Section 24(5) which gives the Registrar the “power to issue such directions to protect the interests of a breeder against any abusive act committed by any third party during the period between filing of application for registration and decision taken by the Authority on such application”.
Prabhat Agri Biotech Ltd. et al. v. Registrar of Plant Varieties
The petitioners, Prabhat Agri Biotech Ltd. (Prabhat), Nuziveedu Seeds (Nuziveedu) and Kaveri Seed Company Ltd. (Kaveri), challenged the vires of Section 24(5) of the Act. Nuziveedu, a sister company to Prabhat, had, over the course of several years, various hybrid and parental cotton lines copied from one of the respondents, Maharashtra Seeds (Maharashtra). In fact, Maharashtra filed an application to register a hybrid variety of cotton which was alleged to have been developed using Nuziveedu’s proprietary parent lines. After filing its application, Maharashtra filed an application under Section 24(5) against Prabhat and Nuziveedu. The third petitioner, Kaveri, was not subject to an application under Section 24(5) by any third party.
During the proceeding, the Solicitor General, on behalf of the government of India, argued that Section 24(5) was necessary for the public interest. Specifically, the Solicitor General argued that this section of the Act was based on Article 13 of the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties, 1991 (UPOV), which necessitated Article 24(5) because it obligated parties to take suitable steps to safeguard the rights of applicants during the period during which their application was under evaluation. Specifically, the Solicitor General pointed to the statements in Article 13 of UPOV which states:
“Each Contracting Party shall provide measures designed to safeguard the interest of the breeder during the period between the filing or the publication of the application for the grant of a breeder’s right and the grant of that right. Such measures shall have the effect that the holder of a breeder’s right shall at least be entitled to equitable renumeration from any person who, during the said period, has carried out acts which, once the right is granted, require the breeder’s authorization as provided in Article 14. A Contracting party may provide that the said measures shall only take effect in relation to persons whom the breeders has notified of the filing of the application.”
According to the Solicitor General, Section 24(5) was based on sound public policy due to the fact that Article 13 of UPOV required a measure of interim protection. As a result, Section 24(5) had to be enacted.
In its decision, the Court stated that the power conferred upon the Registrar in Section 24(5), namely, the ability to make an interim order anytime during the pendency of an application, was simply too broad. Specifically, the Court stated:
“…its exercise is not in any manner conditioned upon consideration of any objective material. The only guidance given in the section was that such an order could be made if a person were engaged in an ‘abusive act’”.
According to the Court, an “abusive act” contemplated a range of behaviors from suspicion of infringement or use of someone’s material to the genuine use of material legitimately developed by a rival. As such, the Court stated:
“In other words, ‘abuse’ is not only wide and vague in its import, but ‘abuse’ by which entity – a specified third party, or generically all other parties (consider third parties) in the subject-object verb relationship sharpens the concern that the power (to issue interim orders) is overbroad and without any guidance. To illustrate, an abuse could be a case of theft of variety and its exploitation by sale; if demonstrable, that it is an abuse might be capable of injunctive relief. However, at the other end of the scale, if there is no theft or allegation of theft but rather claim by the applicant that it has developed the variety first and is, therefore, entitled to protection as opposed to the assertion of a rival that such a position is incorrect and the variety is an extant one, or a farmers’ variety, a possible view can be that use by such rival of the variety is an abusive act. Therefore, the basis for grant of an order under the impugned provision is existence of a vague and undefined state of affairs.”
The Court noted that the Act clearly provided the conditions that an applicant had to fulfill to secure the registration of a new variety. In contrast, the Act was less than clear and even vague in terms of what a Registrar had to scrutinize when deciding whether or not to grant interim relief under Section 24(5). What seemed to trouble the Court was the fact that the power of Section 24(5) was exercisable at any stage, even the moment after an application was filed, regardless of the merits of the case (namely, whether the applicant claimed to be a breeder or farmer of even if the variety was entitled to protection).
Additionally, the Court was further troubled by the fact that while the Act clearly spelled out the rights and obligations of the applicants, the qualifications to be fulfilled and the conditions to be made as well as the various steps involved in the granting or refusal of an application, it failed to specify the requirements and/or qualifications of individuals suitable to hold the office of Registrar. In fact, the Court noted that there was nothing in the Act that required that the Registrar have any judicial or quasi judicial expertise. In view thereof, according to the Court, it was constitutionally impermissible to give the Registrar the power to make significant legal determinations such as those contemplated under Section 24(5) given the potentially far-reaching implications.
The Court concluded stating:
“Given the importance of the Act, there is enormous danger in empowering authorities with unguided and uncanalized power through provisions that can implicate livelihoods and limit or impair food access to tens of thousands – potentially hundreds of thousands of farmers and users of plant varieties. The existence of a large section of farmers unschooled in the provisions of the Act and unaware of their rights renders unethical bioprospecting practices and spurious claims to development of new or other registrable varieties, entitled to registration, a real possibility. Section 24(5) of the Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Act as cast as present may undoubtedly be an adequate remedy to prevent abusive practices (assuming that what is abusive can be defined over a period of time); yet the danger of abuse of the provision itself and the attendant (likely) long term injury to innocent breeders, framers and those in the business of development of hybrids and plant varieties far outweighs its benefits, in view of the unguided nature of the power, which is destructive of the rule of law and contrary to Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Section 24(5) of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, is, therefore, declared void.”