Genetic Use Restriction (or Terminator) Technologies (Gurts) in Agricultural Biotechnology: The Limits of Technological Alternatives to Intellectual Property

A major challenge to sustaining exponential advances in biotechnology and digital technology in the last couple of decades has been the need for a suitable protection and appropriation regime for these technologies. While the malleability of intellectual property rights continues to be stretched to accommodate novel advances in both digital and biological technologies, indications are that other proprietary options are increasingly becoming attractive to stakeholders in these technologies. The limits of traditional intellectual property rights and, perhaps more so, the natures of the two technologies have forced stakeholders to explore alternative protective regimes. The need for a tighter proprietary framework to support digital and biotechnology endeavors stems mainly from the perception that valuable information or inventions in the two areas are particularly expensive to generate and effortlessly inexpensive to reproduce.

With regard to genetic modification in plant materials or agricultural biotechnology in general, the inherently self-reproducing nature of transgenic or genetically modified materials, particularly seeds, makes it rather tasking for traditional intellectual property rights to efficiently protect the proprietary interests of inventors and investors alike. This article evaluates the progression of knowledge protection in agricultural biotechnology through traditional intellectual property rights, its sui generis versions, legislative interventions, and contractual devices to the contemporary epoch of a molecular or technology-driven intellectual property alternative exemplified in genetic use restrictiontechnologies (GURTs), more commonly known as terminator technology.

Terminator technology is a very recent and emerging phenomenon. It derives its nickname from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s science fiction movie of the same name. Generally, terminator technology is a two-prong biotechnological device for inducing sterility in seeds to fundamentally alter their self-reproducing character, or to induce trait susceptibility, selection or suppression. Since the first patent for this technology was granted in the United States in March 1998, terminator technology has been perceived in the broader context of genetic modification in food and agricultural materials. Oppositions to the technology are staked on that inclusive background and they encompass traditional objections to genetic modification and attendant privatization of life forms. In a nutshell, the grounds of objection include ethical concerns about a technology that is oriented toward seed sterility and trait manipulation, the general environmental or ecological impacts of terminator varieties, as well as long and short term effect of terminator varieties on biological diversity and public health.

Oguamanam, Chidi, Genetic Use Restriction (or Terminator) Technologies (Gurts) in Agricultural Biotechnology: The Limits of Technological Alternatives to Intellectual Property (August 11, 2005). Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, pp. 59-76, 2005.

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