SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge expressed frustration Thursday when attorneys for the University of California, Davis, and two of its former researchers turned what he called clear-cut issues over California’s strawberry industry into a three-hour slugfest, though he indicated he would rule for the university.
Research scientists Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson ran UC-Davis's strawberry breeding program for 22 years, until they retired in 2014 and formed California Berry Cultivars (CBC) to sell their strawberries commercially.
Their company sued the Regents of the University of California in Alameda County Court last May for access to the strawberry varieties they invented at UC-Davis, and accused the school of neglecting the program, which they say is vital to the state's strawberry growers.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria called it an “obvious breach of contract" that Shaw and Larson had refused to assign their intellectual property rights in the strawberry plants when they retired, and that they decided to assign them to CBC. He declared that CBC had infringed on the university’s plant patents.
Shaw and Larson developed more than a dozen strawberry varieties at UC-Davis that are grown throughout the world. In 2004, they released the Albion variety, known for its sweetness and high yield. It can be grown as many as nine months out of the year and is the most widely planted strawberry in California today.
CBC, with Shaw and Larson at the helm, expected to continue developing the UC-Davis varieties using the same germplasm — stock strains of valuable genes — Shaw and Larson had developed at UC-Davis, and says the school denied the company access.
So Shaw and Larson assigned their rights in the plants to CBC in February 2016.
However, they had signed employment and patent agreements when they went to work for UC-Davis, agreeing to disclose to the university any plants they developed there that had the potential to be patented, and to assign their rights to the university in any of the plants that it deemed worthy of patenting, according to the UC Regents’ cross-motion for summary judgment.
UC-Davis says that based on those contracts, it owns the varieties Shaw and Larson invented, and that the men knew it. So, the school says, they concocted a scheme while still employees to use its plants to develop new varieties and sell them through CBC, in competition with the university.
The university licenses patented varieties to certain nurseries, which reproduce them for sale to strawberry growers. But it does not license them to private breeders.
Its top-ranked agriculture school has developed 56 varieties of strawberries since 1945, creating strains that are bigger, taste better, stay fresh longer and yield six times more per acre. More than 80 percent of the strawberries grown in North America and more than 60 percent worldwide were developed at UC-Davis. California strawberries rake in $2.5 billion a year, and are the state’s fifth most-valuable crop.
Chhabria seemed to side with UC-Davis at the Thursday hearing, where the parties argued their dueling motions for summary judgment.
Calling Shaw and Larson “very sketchy,” Chhabria laid out the remedy under California law for their contract breach with the university: an order directing CBC to assign its rights to UC-Davis, the same rights that Shaw and Larson were required to assign to it when they retired in 2014.