On Tuesday the court case Bowman vs. Monsanto got underway in the Supreme court. Vernon H. Bowman, a 75-year-old farmer in Indiana has been sued for infringing on a patent that Monsanto holds on genetically modified soy beans.
Monsanto produces genetically modified seeds which are Roundup Ready and can withstand herbicides as well as weed killers. This makes for an increased volume of successfully grown corn, soy beans, etc., but it also leads to another problem, and that is farmers indiscriminately spraying herbicides and pesticides knowing that the GMO crops won’t fail to reach harvest. This has made Monsanto’s seeds very successful in the farming community.
According to Monsanto, the farmers sign an agreement in which they agree to use the seeds for a year, and have to buy new seeds for the following growing season. Mr. Bowman however circumvented this patent system for over 8 years by purchasing soybeans from a nearby grain elevator, and using them for his harvests. You can read more about this Supreme Court challenge by Bowman.
Here are some of the main questions that are being asked in regards to this case:
Does Monsanto hold rights to the DNA of a seed that is an offspring of an originally purchased seed?
This question intrigues just about everybody from Monsanto to the music industry, movie industry, and anywhere else where copyrights are a concern. First of all, what needs to be cleared up is whether Monsanto holds patent rights to the physical seed itself, or just the DNA molecules. If it holds patent rights to the DNA molecule chains, then it should allow the farmers to reuse the new seeds at a discounted rate. It was, after all, the farmer’s fertile soil that did the work to produce the seeds, relieving Monsanto of some overhead. On the other hand, if Monsanto holds the rights to the complete seed itself, then that raises the next question:
Does the lifetime of the contract when purchasing seeds extend beyond the original seeds and into the newly harvested seeds?
According to Justice Stephen Breyer, patent law holds that it is illegal to plant them:
What it prohibits here is making a copy of the patented invention and that is what he did.
Now I’m not a farmer nor an expert in agriculture, but I am familiar with the issue of pirating CDs, DVDs, copying music, software and so on. The aforementioned copying examples are completely controllable. You can quite simply just say to yourself, copying is illegal and I should not participate in such acts.
But in the case of Bowman vs. Monsanto, how can it be considered illegal to copy a seed (the patented invention) when seed reproduction is an inevitable process of harvesting? Not forgetting to mention that a seed itself is a form of a living organism, does Monsanto have the right to newly reproduced life? Can newly formed life be potentially patented? This is a topic all by itself.
I do not believe that Monsanto could hold rights to the new seeds, as they are not the ones who physically produced them. Therefore the lifetime of the contract should not be able to go past the originally bought seeds. It’s just like burning a music CD. The album producer does not hold rights to the physical CD itself, rather to the make up, the songs. Therefore I do not think that Bowman breached any contracts.
So in the end, what Monsanto can hold rights to are the intellectual property, which is the DNA within the newly reproduced seeds.
It’s cheaper to buy a music album on iTunes than the physical album in a store. It’s cheaper to download a movie legally (in most cases) than to purchase a physical disc at a store. It’s also cheaper to download an eBook than to buy the physical book itself from a book store. The big difference in the digital purchases is the overhead cost relief that producers get by licencing just the intellectual property, and therefore being able to sell the “intellectual property” at a lower price.
Why can’t Monsanto do something similar?