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California strawberry growers clash over juicy patents

There is nothing physical about a California strawberry that makes it distinct from strawberries grown elsewhere. They are all red, plump and juicy. But the story of our state’s strawberry is juicy, too, filled with stories of theft, intrigue and collusion.

The leading brand of grocery store strawberries – Driscoll’s – recently filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that its proprietary berries were stolen by the most celebrated strawberry breeder, Douglas V. Shaw and his company, California Berry Cultivars (CBC).

Strawberry history buffs know Shaw as the key figure in the years-long legal battle with UC Davis, where he led the strawberry-breeding program until he set out to start his own business in 2014. UC Davis alleged that Shaw and an assistant took university property – strawberry varieties and breeding records – when they departed, and then infringed on its patents. While the federal jury found in the university’s favor, the judge ordered the parties to settle their differences.

They did so and the $2.3 billion California strawberry industry relaxed at the cessation of hostilities.

Many growers are hoping that the latest litigation will similarly end in a settlement followed by a long period of legal peace. Some observers say the latest lawsuit could result in a new way of looking at plant patenting, which continues to grow more sophisticated.

The days when a tomato or a strawberry or an apple were just generic foods is gone. These plants and fruits are now often brands with distinctive qualities that can be legally protected.

“These patents have gotten a lot more valuable, because they’ve reached past the commodity level,” a patent expert told a news source. “Driscoll’s has a huge plant patent portfolio, and it wants to make sure that what it has doesn’t become part of the public domain.”

Southern California companies that want to protect their intellectual property should discuss their legal options with a law firm experienced in IP litigation.