A lucrative specialty for a lot of lawyers in recent years has been protection of intellectual property rights related to ag products.

Whether it’s genetically engineered seed, ag chemicals, or other products protected by law, companies are continually having to take legal action to fend off those who would copy, steal, or otherwise infringe on their property.

“We’ve had a lot of issues in the U.S. centered on intellectual property protection, and most are resolved on a businesslike basis,” says Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, a trade association representing ag chemical manufacturers.

But increasingly, he said at the Southern Crop Production Association’s annual conference, “We’re seeing this as an important global issue, with significant impact on the ag chemical and biotechnology sectors.

“A lot of U.S. farmers are concerned that they’re paying higher prices for pesticide products or technology fees for ag biotech products, while farmers in countries like Brazil and Argentina — increasingly major competitors against American farmers in the world marketplace — either are getting discounted prices or stealing them outright.”

Vroom said, “It’s our obligation as an industry to go to the World Trade Organization and make these concerns an important international trade issue, to be sure that countries that have signed into and are legitimate members of the WTO have to implement their obligation to protect intellectual property.

“Particularly is this true in major developing countries that have significant agricultural exports competing with American farmers, European farmers, and others who respect intellectual property rights in the marketplace.”

It’s a major issue in China, now competing with American agriculture on many fronts, says Scott Rozelle, who spoke recently at the Western Growers Association conference. He’s spending a year in China doing economic research in the ag sector.

Intellectual property rights are being flouted at every turn, he said. “On the streets of Beijing, you can buy every Microsoft software program ever made on two-CD sets for $2.50, or the latest Hollywood movie DVD for 60 cents.”

But, Rozelle said, it’s a part of market growing pains, and will change. “It will continue to be a problem, but it will get better, slowly. The same thing happened in Japan in the 1960s; now they have very strict intellectual property protection.”

Monsanto’s highly productive, genetically modified seed is a good example, he says. “Everyone began adopting it — then everyone began copying it and selling it. Monsanto made money, but not nearly as much as they would had their product not been stolen.

“But now, two or three Chinese seed companies have become very large and are lobbying their government, saying, ‘Help us to crack down on fake seed.’ When the Chinese government’s own constituents are pressuring it to enact intellectual property rights, it gets attention. DuPont had a terrible problem with people stealing their product formulas and manufacturing them under fake DuPont labels. They went to the governments of the various provinces and said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ And the government has started cracking down.

“It’s an evolutionary process,” Rozelle said, “and there will be a lot of counterfeit products sold before it’s all over. But it will eventually be worked out.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com