Justice R. K. Gauba of the Delhi high court (DHC) by an order dated 28th March 2017 ruled that Monsanto Technology LLC’s termination of its sub- licence agreement with Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd was illegal and arbitrary.
DHC has reinstated the agreement, however, the trait fee to be paid to the plaintiffs, for the use of the suit patent and trademarks have been directed by the Court, to be in accord with the prevalent local laws, as in force. The court also directed the agreement to be modified according to the format of the GM Technology Agreement Guidelines, 2016 issued by the government.
The facts of the case are as follows:-
- Suit for infringement and passing off was filed by Monsanto Technology LLC, Monsanto Holdings Private Limited and Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. impleading three defendants, namely Nuziveedu Seeds Limited, Prabhat Agri Biotech Limited and Pravardhan Seeds Private Ltd., on the groubds that the defendants were continuing to “market and sell” Genetically Modified Hybrid Cotton Planting Seeds inspite of termination of the sub-license agreements between the parties, alleging violation of their intellectual property rights covered by the registered patent (214436), and trademarks BOLLGARD and BOLLGARD II.
- The defendant submitted two counter claims. One counter claim prayed for a declaration that the sub-licensing agreements (of 2015) is “valid, binding and in force” and consequently, the defendants being entitled to “all the rights and benefits” thereunder. The other counter claim prayed for revocation of the plaintiffs‟ patent 214436.
- The Plaintiffs patent 214436 claims a method for producing a transgenic plant comprising incorporating into its genome a nucleic acid sequence comprising a plant functional promoter sequence operably linked to a first polynucleotide sequence encoding a plastid transit peptide, which is linked in frame to a second polynucleotide sequence encoding a Cry2Ab Bacillus thuringiensis ᴕ- endotoxin protein, wherein said plastid transit peptide functions to localize said ᴕ- endotoxin protein to a subcellular organelle or compartment” (claims 1 to 24) and a nucleic acid sequence comprising a promoter operably linked to a first polynucleotide sequence encoding a plastid transit peptide, which is linked in frame to a second polynucleotide sequence encoding a Cry2Ab Bacillus thuringiensis 8-endotoxin protein, wherein expression of said nucleic acid sequence by a plant cell produces a fusion protein comprising an amino-terminal plastid transit peptide covalently linked to said 5-endotoxin protein, and wherein said fusion protein functions to localize said 5-endotoxin protein to a subcellular organelle or compartment” (claims 25 to 27).
- The marks “BOLLGARD” and “BOLLGARD-II” having been registered, in India, under the Trademarks Act, 1999.
- Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. entered into sub-license agreements with defendants (2004), and under such sub-license agreements, the defendants received 50 grams of Transgenic Bt. Cotton seeds in consideration of Rupees Fifty Lakhs. The said sublicense agreement also contained an obligation on the defendants to pay a “trait value”.
- During the currency of the sub-license agreements of 2004, some dispute arose with regard to the “trait value” and the 2004 sub-license agreements were replaced by new sublicense agreements executed separately in favor of each of the three defendants (sub-license agreements of 2015).
- In the meantime, the Central Government in terms of Cotton Seeds Price (Control) Order, 2015, issued a notification via which the maximum selling price of Bt. Cotton Seeds packets were fixed. The MSP for BG I being Rs. 635 per packet, with zero trait value being payable, while the MSP for BG II version being Rs. 800 per packet inclusive of Rs.751 towards seed value and Rs. 49 on account of trait value.(The intervention of the Central Government by above noted Cotton Seeds Price (Control) Order, 2015, was challenged and such challenges by and large being still sub-judice.)
- Licensing and Formats for GM Technology Agreement Guidelines, 2016, were also notified and published by the Government of India. These Guidelines primarily made to ensure non-discriminative licensing to encourage competition and availability of GM cotton seeds to cotton farmers at fair and reasonable prices.
- The defendants by their communication informed Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. that the trait value payable under the 2015 Sub-License Agreements stood statutorily modified and that Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd. should charge the trait value. This request was turned down and this took the matter to the High Court of Judicature at Bombay.
- For the kharif 2015-16 season, Mahyco by further communications called upon the defendants to pay the trait value in terms of 2015 Sub-License Agreements, but such demand was not being complied with. Instead, by their similar communications, the first and second defendant requested the plaintiff to refund the trait fee statedly paid “in excess”, referring to the Government of India price control orders. This demand did not find favour with Mahyco and Plaintiffs alleging breach terminated the agreement. Hence the present suit.
Arguments and finding
- Validity of suit patent:-
Validity of the suit patent was challenged under various provisions of the law like Section 3(f), 3(h) and (j), Section 8, Section 10 (4) and Section 59 (1) etc.
The court held that, whether or not the suit patent is liable to be revoked is a question which would need to be addressed at an appropriate stage only after pleadings in that regard are complete and evidence is adduced on issues thereby raised. No comments were made on such aspect of the dispute.
The court however made a prima-facie finding regarding patentability under section 3(j). The Court agreed with the submissions of the plaintiffs that Section 3(j) of the Patents Act, cannot deprive the patentee of due reward of human skill and ingenuity resulting in human intervention and innovations over and above what occurs in nature. Suit patent involve laboratory processes and are not naturally occurring substances which only are to be excluded from the purview of what is an invention by virtue of the provision contained in Section 3(j). These claims being products or processes of biotechnology are rightly entertained by the Indian Patent office.
- Protected by the Plant Varieties Act
It was also submitted by the defendants that impugned acts on the part of defendants are protected by the provisions of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001, by virtue of Section 92, overriding the Patents Act, 1970. The use of any variety as an initial source for the purpose of growing other varieties as is the activity undertaken by the defendants, the limited right of the person claiming ownership of the intellectual property right of such variety is to claim “benefit sharing” under Section 26.
The Court however did not agree with the Defendant and held that the invention which is the subject matter of suit patent is not same as development of a variety within the meaning of Plant Varieties Act. The right to use the genetic material is the subject matter of a patent granted and protected by the Patents Act, in general, and Section 48 thereof, in particular. Section 30 of the Plant Varieties Act is a provision meant only for “researchers” and not for entities such as defendants out to make commercial exploitation and further that it gives, at the most, right to use a “variety” to develop other varieties but not so as to confer the right to use DNA or genetic material.
The contentions of the defendants based on the provisions of the Plant Varieties Act or the import of possible remedy of “benefit sharing” available to the plaintiffs thereunder, or the question as to whether the same would be more efficacious, or extinguishes or erodes the rights conferred by Section 48 of the Patents Act, 1970 has however been left to be addressed at the time of final adjudication
It was also contended that the fact that the defendants’ product comprises of components or genetic material conferring other traits in addition to the DNA construct or nucleotide sequences of the suit patent therefore there is no infringement. However this was considered to be irrelevant, as the presence of other components is immaterial so long as the patented invention is contained within the defendants’ product, this itself being sufficient to constitute infringement.
It was also argued by the Defendants that the claims are directed to a method performed in lab, the biological process adopted by the defendants however is essentially based on the other claims which though submitted with the application under PCT (Patent Corporation Treaty), were withdrawn, the same not being not patentable under section 3(j) and 3(h). The claims were therefore argued to be not infringed.
The court disagreed with the Defendants and accepted the argument of the Plaintiff that infringement by “use” of the patented invention in claims 25 to 27 stands made out because the defendants have admitted that their cotton varieties and hybrid exhibit Bt. trait which would have been triggered only on account of DNA construct or nucleotide sequence on claim nos.25 to 27. The use of the claimed construct was therefore held to be infringement. Court in this respect also relied upon the view taken by the Supreme Court of Canada in Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto, (2004) 1 SCR 902, wherein it was argued that ultimately what matters is whether the defendants are taking advantage (in whole or in part – directly or indirectly) of the technical contribution or patented invention of the plaintiffs.
The court held that the plaintiffs were duty bound to consider the request of the defendants as made by the communications beginning July 2015, for modification of the terms as to the rate of trait fee payable under the 2015 sub-license agreements for which the mechanism had been agreed upon in the agreement. Since the plaintiffs did not adhere to their obligation under the contract, the demand of payment under the contract terms being not lawful, it apparently being higher than the trait fee permitted by the law in force, the defendants could not have been found to be in default or to have breached their obligations. The termination of the sub-license agreements was therefore held to be prima facie illegal and arbitrary. The parties remain bound by their obligations under the terms and conditions of the 2015 Sub-License Agreements for the period(s) stipulated therein, or till the same are lawfully terminated.
The court also directed that the plaintiffs would be entitled to all the rights under the 2015 Sub License Agreements except as to the rate of trait value payable thereunder and the same has to be in accord with the prevalent local laws prescribed by Cotton Seeds Price (Control) Order, 2015 as indeed of the Licensing and Formats for GM Technology Agreement Guidelines, 2016, both promulgated by the Government of India.