Open source is a solution against growing monopolisation. Seed used to be a commonly owned good, available for everyone. But it is now being concentrated in the hands of a few companies. Farmers, and society as a whole, are increasingly dependent on these firms. In addition, monopolies stifle innovation. And worse: a few widely grown varieties shrink the biological diversity that is vital for our existence.
Open source allows seed to be used without restrictions from patents or variety protection. But that does not mean there are no restrictions at all. Rather, open source protects seed from being privatised; it stays as a common good. There are clear rules: the user may sow open-source seed, multiply it, pass it on, and breed with it. The user must grant the same rights that he or she has enjoyed to future owners of the seed. This is also known as “copyleft”: any future enhancements or varieties based on the seed are subject to the same rules.
The open-source licence prevents the privatisation of newly developed plant genetic resources that have not yet been distributed (e.g. a new crop variety). The licence is a legally binding contract that makes it possible to pursue violations. A mere promise would not permit this. The licence contributes to the multiplication of common property and creates an alternative to the tide of privatisation.
A registered variety is one that is recognised and permitted by the state. It meets the “DUS” criteria of distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. For many agricultural varieties, cultural values also play a role. In many countries a variety must be registered before it can be traded or sold. This includes all countries in the EU.
An unregistered variety is one that is not recognised by the state. Landraces and populations belong in this category. They do not require uniformity and stability. This means breeders can continue to rely on genetic heterogeneity and evolutionary change. Unregistered varieties of important crops may be exchanged only in small quantities, but may not be bought and sold. For less important crops, the seed may be traded freely.
Variety protection grants the owner exclusive rights and allows him or her to prevent other people from using it or to charge a usage fee. Variety protection may be granted to varieties that are new, meet the DUS criteria (distinctiveness, uniformity and stability), and have not yet been distributed.
The open-source licence presents a new alternative. It prevents claims to exclusive right and obliges the user to give others access to the variety free of charge. Any future enhancements or varieties based on the seed are subject to the same rules. Free access does not mean that open-source seed is free of cost. Seed producers still have to be remunerated.
It is a sad fact that in recent years the European Patent Office has increasingly allowed the patenting of plants and plant characteristics that occur in nature or are derived from normal breeding (that is, breeding without the use of genetic engineering). This is contrary to Article 53b of the European Patent Convention. The patent-granting procedure does not check for legal ownership or legally compliant behaviour. It does check if the variety is new, as novelty is required condition. Patent offices do this by checking all publicly available sources. This is why it is very important to describe the licensed seed in great detail. These descriptions are published immediately and are used as evidence if it comes to a patent dispute.
Various approaches to fulfil the open source principles are currently being tried out. In the USA, Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) has chosen the ethical approach, in which it requires the user to promise to comply by the open source rules. In India, farmers have chosen an approach based on an adaption of licences. In Venezuela, local groups are contributing to the development of rules that would have legal force. In Europe, however, the legal framework makes it possible to work with a legally enforceable contract. This is the approach used by OpenSourceSeeds. The literature regards such a contract-based commons as a promising avenue.
The open-source licence
The variety must be new and not circulated before the licence is granted.
The variety may not have any characteristics or gene sequences that have been patented.
The licence is a contract under civil law that regulates the transfer of seed. It obliges the licensee to grant the same rights that he or she has enjoyed to future owners of the seed. Any future enhancements or varieties based on it are subject to the same rule.
No. The genetic code of all higher organisms is unique; for example, two carrot plants growing next to each other do not share the exact same genetic code. The licensing of seed is based on the phenotypic characterisation of a variety or population. There are several standard approaches for this.
Yes. The meanings of all language versions are the same. It is important to choose a language that the recipient will understand best. Please contact us if you wish to help develop a new language version.
Using the licence
Easy: when you transfer the seed, simply include a copy of the licence agreement and draw the recipient’s attention to it. The recipient’s signature on the agreement is the best way to prove that he or she agrees with the licensing terms. If the recipient does not accept the terms, he or she is not allowed to receive the seed.
You may do almost anything with an open-source variety. You can use it to produce goods for professional or private purposes. You may multiply it, pass it on and enhance it. You may use it for breeding and may distribute the modified material as long as you include the licence with it.
You are not allowed to claim exclusive property rights to the seed. For example, you may not claim patent protection on the seed, the variety or plant genetic material derived from it.
That depends. For all the varieties listed on this website you can find out what country they were developed in. If you live in a country that has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (e.g. the United States, Vatican City and disputed territories such as Kosovo), the licence may not have the same force as elsewhere. Please contact us for detailed information.
The Nagoya Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It regulates access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing. In the European Union, EU Regulation 511/2014 governs what users of genetic resources are obliged to do and outlines the documents required for the acquisition of genetic resources (such as open-source seed).
It depends. The protocol affects you only if you use open-source varieties for breeding, enhancements, crossings or similar activities. If this is the case, you have to follow the documentation obligations (see Article 4 of EU Regulation 511/2014) when you acquire the seed, or at the latest when you intend to enhance a variety or perform research on it.
First the good news: Effective licence agreements can be made with nationals of a EU member state without any problem. This is also the case for people of other nationalities who reside in the EU. In other cases (non-EU citizens outside the EU's territory), it can get complicated. Please send us a short email describing the circumstances if this applies to you.
The process is simple. Four types of information are needed:
Personal details of the breeder.
detailed description of the variety following a standard international approach. We use the UPOV questionnaire.
A variety description to be used by gardeners and farmers that displays all relevant characteristics (see our guidelines for such descriptions).
A declaration stating that the variety has not yet been distributed.
Forms for the first, second and fourth points can be downloaded from our website.
All registrations will be processed. A formal review will check if the required four types of information (see previous question) are complete. If this is the case, the variety will be registered. Otherwise our team will point out what information is missing or incomplete.
The open-source licence applies only if all users, starting with the breeder, comply with the regulations. Seed that has already been circulated without an open-source licence cannot be protected from patenting because the licence cannot take effect retrospectively. Such varieties are excluded from open-source licensing.
We are currently developing a list of disgribution partners. Please let us know of other distributors that are missing from this list.
OpenSourceSeeds does not sell seed or have a shop. We refer to partners who are specialists in seed production and sales. We see our task as creating the conditions for open-source licensing. We provide licence forms and guidelines, and collect and give access to information of open-source varieties.
- Buy and distribute open-source varieties and tell people about the idea.
- Recommend the OpenSourceSeeds concept to plant breeders and distributors. We are happy to get in touch with potential new partners.
- Make a donation to support our work. We are grateful for every donation; big or small.
Transfer donations to the following account:
IBAN: DE25 2605 0001 0000 1552 18
OpenSourceSeeds is a project of the non-profit organization AGRECOL e.V.
Donations made in Germany are tax-deductible. We are happy to issue a receipt for donations larger than €200. For this we would need your name and address. For smaller amounts the tax authorities require only an account statement. Donations of up to 20% of your total income qualify for tax relief.
We support the breeding and open-source licensing of new crop varieties so that these can become accessible to all. Part of the donations covers the costs of administration and management of variety licences. OpenSourceSeeds supports breeders to market their seed and to pursue licence violators. We consult various interest groups and raise awareness on the benefits of open-source licensing. Another part of the donations finances breeding projects that develop new commonly owned varieties.
OpenSourceSeeds is a project of AGRECOL e.V., the Association for AgriCulture and Ecology. Active since 1988, this non-profit association promotes dialogue and exchange on locally adapted, ecologically sound land use. Seed is a central topic in its work. Find more information about AGRECOL here.