Social media was in frenzy when news regarding a case concerning the teff patent was won in the Netherlands. It did not help that the court decision, accessible online, was in Dutch, nor did it help that there was different positions coming from different government offices. And, as this confusion was getting to people, my favorite thing about social media happened: people started sending each other documents and information and helping each other figure it out. To be honest, these are the dates that I am grateful for social media. So below is pieced together information from social media that has helped me get clarity on the patents on Teff.
The Dutch courts rendered a judgment on November 11th 2018 on a case that concerned Teff patents. The case is as follows, a company called Ancientgrain, owner of the Teff Patents, sued another company called Bakels. The suit was based on Ancientgrain’s claim that Bakels, a baking company, is using the teff processing method that it has patented without getting any permission from it, therefore it is infringing the patent. Ancientgrain was thus claiming that Bakels pay it damages from infringement and stop processing teff in that manner until it gets its permission. Bakels main defense rested on the argument that the procession patents owned by Ancientgrain are not original or inventive, therefore this patent should be invalid.
The court’s decision was that the teff processing patents owned by Ancientgrain lack inventiveness and are based on public domain, i.e. knowledge that is common among people, therefore it declared both patents invalid. It therefore ruled in favor of Bakels, stating that there can be no infringement on an invalid patent. As per the tweets of the Netherlands Embassy this court is the competent court to invalidate patents, and it has official made the Dutch Teff patents null and void.
But these patents have been registered in Spain, Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. So, this court decision is more like, 1 down and 5 more to go. But in a Dutch newspaper published the day after the court decision came into effect, the legal representative for Bakels stated that now that the Dutch Teff patents have been invalidated, his client will now begin the process of getting those in the remaining 5 European countries invalidated as well, by applying for enforcement of the Dutch court judgment that it has secured.
What does this mean for us? This is fantastic news for Ethiopia as we are no longer in a situation where we have to fight to get these patents scrapped off. They have been hanging over our heads for the past 15 years and now lucky for us we are in a situation where, without spending a penny, we are getting what we want, all of the Teff patents invalidated. But, we should not be fooled by our lucky strike. Firstly, what happened with the Teff patents is proof that we do not have adequate methods to protect our natural and national resources. The second point is that, we have to have better and quick response mechanisms for such matters. Keeping and protecting our natural and national assets should be a priority and not an afterthought. And lastly, we have many specialized experts on this matter in our country who have a vested interest in this cause, we should get them involved in assisting with closing these gaps.
This also means that we can now move our attention from a defensive mode to a protective mode, meaning we can now start thinking about what intellectual property methods we can use to better own our precious resources: Teff. Might I suggest trademarking the word itself and perhaps a geographic indication related IP?
The most interesting information I came across while following up on this Teff related matter is that the largest exporter of Teff is… South Africa. I hope that this experience is a huge learning opportunity of the prominence of this grain and how we must begin to insert ourselves in the market.