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Firms Tangled In The Intellectual Property Weeds

Patent Law: AkzoNobel accuses Huntsman Corp. and former chemist employee of trade-secret theft

by Marc S. Reisch
September 2, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 35

Credit: Regis Lefebure/USDA
Adjuvant used in weed killer for resistant crops such as corn is the subject of an IP dispute.
This is a photo of corn crops.
Credit: Regis Lefebure/USDA
Adjuvant used in weed killer for resistant crops such as corn is the subject of an IP dispute.

Specialty chemicals maker AkzoNobel has sued rival Huntsman Corp., claiming that Huntsman and a former Akzo chemist misappropriated Akzo’s trade secrets to patent a class of chemicals that make the herbicide glyphosate more effective.

In a suit filed on Aug. 23 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Akzo asked that the patent for the chemicals—alkoxylated amidoamines—be put in its name. Akzo also seeks unspecified compensatory damages. At press time, Huntsman had not filed a response to the suit nor answered requests for comment from C&EN.

Glyphosate is widely used to control weeds in crops such as corn and soybeans that have been genetically altered to resist the herbicide. The amidoamines are an adjuvant, which enhances the weed-killing effect of herbicides—typically, by helping them adhere to leaves.

Akzo’s suit claims that Alan J. Stern, a research chemist, obtained information on the “design, synthesis, and use” of the amidoamines in glyphosate formulations while he worked at the company from 1998 to 2002. The firm never filed patents of its own for the amidoamines, preferring to keep them as a corporate secret.

In 2003, Stern joined Huntsman. There, Akzo charges, Stern and others used his knowledge to apply, in 2008, for U.S. and foreign patents on the adjuvant.

The patent filings caught the eye of a potential Akzo customer who questioned whether the company had the right to sell the glyphosate additive, according to Akzo’s suit. Akzo is now concerned that “this uncertain state of affairs” is likely to cause the firm to lose product sales.

Patent expert and University of New Hampshire law professor Christopher Frerking theorizes that the court could deny the patent to both firms. If Huntsman’s patent describes an ingredient considered “prior art” on sale for more than a year, then it isn’t patentable, Frerking says. Akzo may not be entitled to a patent either if it sold the amidoamines for more than a year prior to Huntsman’s patent application, he says. If Akzo’s suit denies the patent, it would open the market to all comers



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