The excuses from growers are endless, from simple “I didn’t knows” to far-fetched tales like, “How did those plants get there?” Some excuses are even comical, but illegal propagation is still no laughing matter as Spring 2009 approaches.
Most breeders agree the majority of growers are honest. They’re not losing sleep wondering when the next grower will break the rules, but breeders are taking extra steps these days to protect themselves, the honest grower and the integrity of the industry. Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Mich., for example, took a more aggressive approach to illegal propagation about a year ago.
“We are trying to clean up the marketplace,” says Dale Deppe, founder of Spring Meadow. “Some of the people cheating were also attempting to be low-cost providers. They were using the tag and then not paying the royalty and marketing fees. They were trying to undercut the market price.”
In an attempt to stop illegal propagators, Spring Meadow began sending legal letters to the growers cheating, taking back royalties and charging a $3-per-plant fine as a penalty. To Deppe’s surprise, the approach was somewhat effective. More work needs to be done, but the action is a start.
“I thought it was going to be more difficult to clean up the market,” he says. “Most people are willing to play by the rules and actually pay back those charges. I can’t give you a list of the people we caught, but it’s pretty shocking to see names that are known in the industry that have fallen into the trap of propagating illegally.”
Perhaps no brand discovered more growers illegally propagating its plants recently than Proven Winners, which caught 137 growers in the most recent year alone through Royalty Administration International (RAI).
Since 2000, Proven Winners has levied assessments of more than $1 million against illegal propagators. To discourage them, Proven Winners recently increased its illegal propagation fine from $1 to $2 per cutting. And RAI, an organization providing patent and royalty enforcement support to Proven Winners, flower breeders and other plant marketers, will be increasing the number of grower visits it makes with better territorial management and the hiring of a sixth field representative. Besides paying a fine, growers caught illegally propagating Proven Winners plant varieties must continue to destroy illegally propagated plants in the presence of RAI reps.
“The number of illegal propagators has most likely remained fairly constant over the past few years” says Mark Broxon, executive director of Proven Winners. “However, the number of illegal discoveries has increased because RAI has been adding field reps to better monitor enforcement activities.”
The upside is most illegal propagators of Proven Winners plants are first-time offenders. If growers accept the fact they did wrong, pay the penalty and destroy the plant after their first offense, Proven Winners will continue to ship to them. If there’s a second instance, Proven Winners will add the grower to an illegal propagator list. And if, by some mad chance, there’s a third offense, Proven Winners will automatically stop shipping to that grower for at least three years.
Ball Horticultural Company takes a similar approach. “There are offenders out there and you can choose not to ship to them,” says Al Davidson, national sales manager for Ball. “If people are seen as repeat offenders, we will stop shipping to them.”
Back in December, when we first told the Proven Winners illegal propagation story in Benchrunner eNews, several readers expressed an interest in breeders revealing the names of those illegally propagating. To them, making the names available to the public might make illegal propagation a dead issue. Then again, it might not.
“Is naming names going to stop growers from illegally propagating? No,” says Sam Rizzi, manager of RAI. “Does everybody stop cheating on their income taxes when one person is caught?”
Rizzi makes an interesting point. Besides, Deppe says many industry people know who the illegal propagators are. And the beat goes on anyway.