How the Search for the Perfect Strawberry Became an Epic Legal Battle

Danita Delimont / Getty Images 
A university and two former professors are headed to court. 

Plant scientist Douglas Shaw loves strawberries. He loves them so much that he spent much of career working in California’s strawberry fields, on a quest to develop what might be considered perfect strawberry: Bright red, juicy, and stays fresh even after being shipped across the country to grocery stores.

He conducted this research with the help of the University of California at Davis, where he led the strawberry breeding program for nearly twenty years. California strawberry farmers, which produce around 1.6 million tons of the fruit annually, grow mostly varieties developed by Shaw and his fellow plant biologist Kirk Larson.

Their strawberries include varieties that are resistant to insects, durable during their often cross-country journeys to our local supermarkets, and some that are even capable of growing out of season, making them a valuable commodity to farms hoping to increase their production and profit.

But when Shaw retired from his job at the college to set up his own for-profit strawberry breeding business called California Berry Cultivars — on which he again teamed with Larson — the two former educators and their university suddenly became adversaries.

UC Davis is suing Shaw and Larson, claiming that they're stealing the school's intellectual property in a lawsuit set to go to trial in federal court later this month. According to a report from ABC, the university is accusing them of “patent infringement and violating an oath they signed not to enrich themselves by taking or acquiring plants, seeds and other biological material and continuing their research using descendants of plants they developed at UC Davis.”

In a $45 million counter suit, Shaw and his partner say that the university is withholding some of their research, thus preventing the world from experiencing the best possible strawberry.

"It doesn't do anybody any good for the university to keep these strawberry plants in a box," said Rick McKnight, an attorney for the two former professors. "This is hurting the California strawberry industry in a major way."

This might seem like quite a bit of fuss over a simple fruit, but Shaw and Larson claim that they made their former employer $100 million in royalties, and dumped millions more of their own money into the project.

If the university is hoarding mysterious uber-strawberry, hopefully this trial will force them to reveal its secrets. But let this be a lesson to all of us: If you mess with somebody's strawberries, expect to find yourself in a jam.

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