Knowledge for better food systems

The Open Source Seed Licence

This paper presents the Open Source Seed (OSS) Licence, a new legal instrument (inspired by open source software) designed to protect access to plant germplasm as a commons accessible to everyone. The legally enforceable licence is being trialled with varieties of tomato, wheat and maize.


The laws to secure intellectual property rights on plant germplasm have been strongly developed in parallel to the ongoing seed market consolidation. Germplasm as a commons, i.e., a natural resource accessible to all members of a society, receives almost no legal protection. On the other hand, the use of germplasm and released cultivars in breeding is increasingly restricted by intellectual property rights. In this study, approaches to open source plant germplasm are discussed, and the Open Source Seed (OSS) Licence is introduced and analysed. The OSS Licence was developed by an interdisciplinary working group of plant breeders, agricultural scientists, lawyers, and commons experts in Europe. The aim is to protect germplasm as a commons, support the free exchange of germplasm, stimulate plant breeding, reduce costs, and accelerate innovation. The OSS Licence is a legal tool and novel approach that extends its reach on derivatives of licenced germplasm. It is compatible with current seed laws. Effects on the access to plant germplasm, on breeding for diverse pedoclimatic environments, socioeconomic systems, and on biodiversity as a whole can first show after a few breeding cycles. The impact of open source germplasm on these aspects needs to be monitored carefully.



Kotschi, J. and Horneburg, B., 2018. The Open Source Seed Licence: A novel approach to safeguarding access to plant germplasm. PLoS biology, 16(10), p.e3000023.

Read the full open-access paper here and see comments from the author here. See also the Foodsource building block What is food security?

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While some of the food system challenges facing humanity are local, in an interconnected world, adopting a global perspective is essential. Many environmental issues, such as climate change, need supranational commitments and action to be addressed effectively. Due to ever increasing global trade flows, prices of commodities are connected through space; a drought in Romania may thus increase the price of wheat in Zimbabwe.

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