Academic Articles

Background on the OSSI Concept

Abstract: In response to ongoing plant genetic enclosures, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is creating a ‘protected commons’ for seed. It is a project, I argue, that reflects characteristics of a growing transnational commoning movement. From the Zapatistas to seed wars, such movements draw attention to commons not simply as a resource, but as a dynamic and evolving social activity: commoning. In the US, OSSI includes 38 plant breeders, 48 seed companies and 377 crop varieties. Yet challenges remain for OSSI to gain wider legitimacy for ‘freed seed’, to build trust in a moral pledge, and to establish fair guidelines for which people and which seed can participate in making the commons. Using the metaphor of ‘beating the bounds’ – a feudal practice of contesting enclosures – I ask how OSSI defends the commons in intersecting arenas. The first way is legal, as OSSI negotiates a move from contract law toward moral economy law. Next is epistemic, as an informal breeder network revitalizes farmer knowledge, while proving more structurally able and culturally equipped to lead commoning efforts. Finally, I reflect on the nature of boundary beating itself, aided by Global South movements. Seed sovereignty perspectives suggest room for a pluriverse of commons to grow.

In principle, intellectual property protections (IPPs) promote and protect important but costly investment in research and development. However, the empirical reality of IPPs has often gone without critical evaluation, and the potential of alternative approaches to lend equal or greater support for useful innovation is rarely considered. In this paper, we review the mounting evidence that the global intellectual property regime (IPR) for germplasm has been neither necessary nor sufficient to generate socially beneficial improvements in crop plants and maintain agrobiodiversity. Instead, based on our analysis, the dominant global IPR appears to have contributed to consolidation in the seed industry while failing to genuinely engage with the potential of alternatives to support social goods such as food security, adaptability, and resilience. The dominant IPR also constrains collaborative and cumulative plant breeding processes that are built upon the work of countless farmers past and present. Given the likely limits of current IPR, we propose that social goods in agriculture may be better supported by alternative approaches, warranting a rapid move away from the dominant single-dimensional focus on encouraging innovation through ensuring monopoly profits to IPP holders.

Abstract: For millennia, seeds have been freely available to use for farming and plant breeding without restriction. Within the past century, however, intellectual property rights (IPRs) have threatened this tradition. In response, a movement has emerged to counter the trend toward increasing consolidation of control and ownership of plant germplasm. One effort, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI,, aims to ensure access to crop genetic resources by embracing an open source mechanism that fosters exchange and innovation among farmers, plant breeders, and seed companies. Plant breeders across many sectors have taken the OSSI Pledge to create a protected commons of plant germplasm for future generations.

Abstract: The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) ( seeks to address the dramatic transition over the past 100 yr in how plant germplasm is distributed, developed, and released: from a freely available resource primarily located in the public sector to proprietary structures managed largely by the private sector. OSSI was developed by a group of plant breeders, farmers, seed companies, nonprofit organizations, and policymakers with the goal of promoting and maintaining open access to plant genetic resources worldwide. OSSI seeks to provide an alternative to pervasive intellectual property rights agreements that restrict freedom to use plant germplasm through the development and promulgation of a Pledge which is intended both to raise awareness of these issues and to ensure that germplasm can be freely exchanged now and into the future. In this paper we discuss the historical forces and trends that have led to various types of biological and intellectual property protections and how this has potentially limited plant breeders’ “freedom to operate” and farmers’ sovereignty over seed. We then discuss how OSSI is providing an alternative to increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights for plants and working to maintain open access to plant germplasm.

Abstract: ‘Food sovereignty’ must necessarily encompass ‘seed sovereignty’. Corporate appropriation of plant genetic resources, development of transgenic crops and the global imposition of intellectual property rights are now widely recognized as serious constraints on the free exchange of seeds and the development of new cultivars by farmers, public breeders and small seed companies. In response, an Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) has been launched in the United States to apply legal mechanisms drawn from the open source software movement to plant breeding. An open source license is a tool constituted by the provisions of contract law. It is a tool of the master inasmuch as the structure of the legal system has been designed to facilitate the activities of the dominant stakeholders in the overarching social formation. This paper assesses the problematics of re-purposing such a tool by examining the issues that have been raised in OSSI’s efforts to develop its licenses and to transmit its sense of their potential to prospective allies. Through an examination of the expressed positions of La Vía Campesina and Navdanya on the nature of ‘seed sovereignty’, the compatibilities and disjunctures of OSSI’s stance with those of potential allies in the food sovereignty movement are assessed.

Abstract: Corporate appropriation of genetic resources, development and deployment of transgenic varieties, and the global imposition of intellectual property rights are now widely recognized as moments of accumulation by dispossession. Though robust and globally distributed, opposition to such processes have been largely defensive in orientation, and even accommodationist in demands for the development of market mechanisms for compensating those from whom germplasm is being collected. A more radical stance founded on legal and operational mechanisms drawn from the open-source software movement could not only function to impede processes of dispossession, but might actually facilitate the repossession of ‘seed sovereignty’. Implementation of ‘biological open-source’ arrangements could plausibly undergird the creation of a protected commons populated by farmers and plant breeders whose materials would be freely available and widely exchanged, but would be protected from appropriation by those who would monopolize them.

Specific examples of IP restrctions and open source breeding

Abstract:  Over the past several decades, there has been a trend toward increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights (IPR) over plant germplasm including contracts, material transfer agreements (MTA), ‘‘bag tag’’ licenses, plant variety protection (PVP) certificates, and utility patents. This has limited the ‘‘freedom to operate’’ for plant breeders wanting to use a di- verse array of germplasm in their breeding programs and has complicated the exchange of plant germplasm around the world (Luby et al., 2015). The goal of many plant breeding programs is to develop cultivars or inbred lines that are genetically stable and homogenous. The goal of breeding the eight populations released here was the opposite: take commercially available cultivars that had freedom to operate for breeding and create diverse carrot populations based on market class and root color. These composite populations are meant to represent some of the diversity present in commercially available carrot germplasm that is available to use in breeding. The populations are the Wisconsin Open Source Composite (WI-OSC) collection: ‘WI-OSC Nantes’, ‘WI-OSC Danvers’, ‘WI-OSC Chantenay’, ‘WI-OSC Ball’, ‘WI-OSC Yellow’, ‘WI-OSC White’, ‘WI-OSC Red’, and ‘WI-OSC Purple’.

Abstract: The intellectual property rights (IPR) landscape for plant germplasm has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, moving from the public domain into proprietary structures. Using carrot as a model crop, we explored the freedom to operate for plant breeding and research in relation to the diversity present in 140 commercially available cultivars in the United States. To determine freedom to operate, we characterized the phenotypic and genotypic diversity across cultivars and the IPR that were associated with each cultivar. With 87 of the 95 cultivars that were not restricted by IPR, we developed eight diverse composite populations of carrot through two cycles of breeding that are meant to encompass the available diversity in commercial germplasm. These populations are being released through the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI, This is the first example of crop germplasm that has been collected, characterized, and bred specifically for entry into an open source commons.

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