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A general public license for seeds?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd November 2010

Context from Sepp Hasslberger:

“The same multinational corporations that are putting their proprietary, genetically modified plants into the envorinment and onto our tables are also well on the way to establishing a monopoly …on seeds. They have purchased the majority of commercial seed companies and the choices for farmers to use non-GM seeds are getting fewer and fewer.

So here is a counter-proposal. Following the example of what was done for free and open source software with a “General Public License” (GPL), Jack Kloppenburg is proposing to establish a GPLPG (General Public License for Plant Germplasm) license for seeds and plant varieties that allows free use of the plants by farmers and growers, but prevents any so licensed seeds or plants from being subsequently altered and made commercial.

The license imposes on subsequent users of the Plant Germplasm (the seeds or plants) that any new varieties developed on the basis of those plants be similarly licensed for free use.”

Background excerpted from a paper by Jack Kloppenburg:

“The specific mechanism Michaels goes on to propose is a “General Public License for Plant Germplasm (GPLPG)” that is explicitly modeled on the GPL developed by the FOSS movement for software.

For Michaels, creating the GPLPG involves a straightforward adaptation of the GPL. Plant scientists would supply germplasm to other parties accompanied by a Materials Transfer Agreement (MTA) specifying the conditions under which the material is being made available. Those conditions would include copyleft provisions permitting (indeed, encouraging) further development and recombination and improvement of the germplasm, but requiring that any lines or cultivars “derived in whole or in part from GPL plant germplasm must likewise be made available to others under GPLPG and without further restriction for use in subsequent breeding programs” (Michaels 1999).

This mechanism is simple, elegant, and effective. No new law is required; like the “shrinkwrap” license already common to software and commercial seed sales, the GPLPG is based on existing contract law. No patenting or PBR protection is necessary; again, the GPLPG is based on existing contract law, not on IPR statutes. The GPLPG is enforceable in existing law; just like the “shrink-wrap” license already common to software and commercial seed sales (Technology Use Agreements), there are statutory legal consequences for those who violate the license provisions. The vehicle for the GPLPG, the MTA, is familiar to the plant science community; the MTA is now the standard mechanism for germplasm exchanges in universities, government agencies, private companies, and the international system and scientists and administrators are accustomed to its use.

The GPLPG can be used for patented or otherwise IPR protected materials; if an owner chooses to release IPR-protected materials under the GPLPG, those IPR provisions are not enforced against GPLPG licensees. The GPLPG is compatible with a flow of benefits to the breeder; royalties may be charged for reproduction and distribution of lines, but not on subsequent uses or distributions by others. The GPLPG is compatible with commercial seed sales; seed of GPLPG lines maybe reproduced and sold, but the vendor has no claim on subsequent uses or distributions. GPLPG seed will not be attractive for appropriation and incorporation into proprietary breeding programs; the “viral” nature of the license requires that any derivative lines developed using GPLPG germplasm must also be distributed under the GPLPG, thus eliminating the possibility of capturing monopoly profits from downstream and derivative applications and uses.

In sum, the GPLPG is sufficiently simple to be used by many different actors (individual farmers, communities, indigenous peoples, plant scientists, universities, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and private companies) in many places and diverse circumstances. Properly deployed, it could be an effective mechanism for creating a “protected commons” for those who are willing to freely share continuous access to a pool of plant germplasm for the purposes of “bazaar”-style, distributed peer production.”

More Information: Jack Kloppenburg, “Seeds, sovereignty, and the Vía Campesina: Plants, Property, and the Promise of Open Source Biology“, prepared for the Workshop on Food Sovereignty: Theory, Praxis and Power, 17-18 November 2008, St. Andrews College, University of Saskatchewan, draft dated 22 November 2008, 34 pp.


5 Responses to “A general public license for seeds?”

  1. Equitas It Solutions Says:

    This is a great idea but this clause “but prevents any so licensed seeds or plants from being subsequently altered and made commercial” makes the GPLPG more analogous to Ceative Commons No Derivatives than the GNU General Public License. The latter specifically permits alteration of the original software, the creation of derivatives and makes no prohibition on selling either the original or derivatives.

    Still an excellent idea though and I hope it succeeds!

  2. Sepp Says:

    You should not take my (probably inadequate) rendition of the idea’s context for a true representation of what the GPLPG actually says.

    To get a better idea of the specifics of the proposed license, please use this link


    to get the pdf of the actual proposal by Kloppenburg.

  3. The Seed War (Parts 1 and 2) « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS Says:

    [...] be our own stewardship and propagation of our own heirloom seeds. Here’s one innovative idea for a legal framework for the seed commons. It would apply existing cooperative licensing to enshrine a system where anyone can innovate and [...]

  4. The CELDF Strategy, and Similar Actions « Volatility Says:

    [...] are legally prevented from owning farms. That’s a great model right there.   The General Public License for Plant Germplasm (GPLPG) is an attempt to bring the Creative Commons/general public license movement to the seed front, to [...]

  5. Quora Says:

    Are GMO products addictive?

    GMO products are addictive for the companies that make them like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta and BASF. Why? Because they can make a minute change in a plant like corn and then patent it then sell it and sue anyone who tries to use it on purpose or…

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