It is apple-picking season! That time of year where apple orchards are busy with people buying baskets of red, green, and yellow fruits. Did you know that some of your favorite apple varieties may have intellectual property protection?

A sometimes forgotten and less talked about type of patent is the plant patent. According to the USPTO, “a plant patent is granted by the Government to an inventor (or the inventor’s heirs or assigns) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. The grant, which lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the application, protects the inventor’s right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced.”¹

Plant patents came about in the early 1930’s. The first plant patent was granted in 1931 to Henry Bosenberg for a CLIMBING OR TRAILING ROSE (USPP1 P). Since then thousands of plant patents have been granted including several patents granted to different varieties of apples. In fact, in recent years, there have been some interesting trends in apple intellectual property.

For instance, in the late 1980’s, the University of Minnesota produced and patented the HONEYCRISP apple variety (USPP7197 P). Researchers cross-pollinated different apple trees, making new genetic combinations, and selected this one as one to produce. The Honeycrisp blossomed in popularity among consumers. Although the Honeycrisp variety was patented, anyone who wanted to could plant a Honeycrisp tree. Nurseries would sell the trees to anyone who called and ordered one, but since it was patented, growers would have to pay a royalty to the University of Minnesota. The royalty fee amount to approximately one dollar per tree, and since then, the patent has expired.

A few years ago, the University of Minnesota developed another tree called the MINNEISKA (USPP18815 P3), which produces the SweeTango® apple. The SweeTango variety has been much more controlled than its Honeycrisp predecessor. Only a small group of apple growers has been given license to grow this variety of apple. The SweeTango is also covered by several trademark registrations. Therefore, anyone who tries to sell an apple under that name could face a trademark dispute. Royalties are also paid to the University of Minnesota for the SweeTango apples that are sold.

The Minneiska, for example, is now known as a “club” or “managed” variety. There are many apple varieties that are controlled like this currently available in stores. These types of apples are only allowed to be produced by a particular group of members. The push to produce club varieties and safeguard them through patent and trademark protection has changed the landscape of how these products are sold. Many people in the apple industry are now putting money into marketing and selling their produce, knowing that with their intellectual property rights protected, not just anyone can sell the same product. Intellectual property protection also helps with quality control and serves to control the quantity of apples that are produced.

When you bite into one of those juicy apples, think, you might just be taking a bite out of someone’s intellectual property.

¹ http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/patent-basics/types-patent-applications/general-information-about-35-usc-161#heading-1