One of the hallmarks of fall is apple harvest season. It may seem odd that such an innocuous thing as a fruit could spark a lawsuit, but a group of orchard owners sued the University of Minnesota challenging the University's right to grant an exclusive license to grow the University's newest apple type, the SweeTango. The lawsuit and the settlement that the parties reached demonstrate the many different areas into which intellectual property law can spread.
Licensing Intellectual Property
One of the ways that a person or business can profit off of intellectual property is by issuing licenses for others to use the property in limited ways. The license protects the intellectual property holder's proprietary rights to the property and helps control the uses to which others may put the property.
Federal law provides severe penalties for those who use intellectual property without permission. Intellectual property holders may file lawsuits seeking an injunction against the unauthorized use. The property holder may also seek actual damages suffered because of the infringement or the profits that the person who used the property without permission earned.
University of Minnesota SweeTango Settlement
Breeders at the University of Minnesota worked for over 10 years to develop the SweeTango apple. The apple grows on Minneiska trees and only those who have licenses from the university may grow the apples. Initially, the university granted exclusive licensing rights to grow the apple to Pepin Heights Orchard. Pepin Heights then organized a collective of orchards in the northern U.S. and southern Canada to grow the apples and began selling them in stores in 2009. Other growers, many located in Minnesota, sued the University, arguing that they should be able to grow an apple developed by a land-grant university.
The parties reached a settlement that contains several provisions. The university and the growers' collective will maintain their licensing agreement. But the number of orchards that can also lease the trees that grow SweeTango apples will increase. The number of Minneiska trees that each orchard may grow will also increase incrementally over the next five years. Growers outside the collective will not be allowed to pool their crops together to make large enough lots to interest wholesalers, though, which was something the growers wanted to do.
The lawsuit settlement reaffirmed the university's right to issue exclusive licenses for all of the different types of products it develops, including fruit, medical devices and mining technology. The university claimed that it is necessary for the school to be able to do so in order to protect the quality of the things it develops.
An Attorney Can Help
Intellectual property laws can be complex and a number of issues can arise when a person or company is trying to draft a licensing agreement to allow others to use intellectual property. People seeking to allow others to use their intellectual property should consult an attorney to help make an agreement that protects the property holder's rights to the fullest extent possible.
People also need the assistance of attorneys when trying to enforce licensing agreements due to the complex nature of intellectual property laws. If you are seeking to draft a licensing agreement or enforce an existing agreement, contact an experienced attorney who can assist you in protecting your property.