Go, Farmer Bowman!

Fingers crossed on this one. Finally, a farmer has dragged Monsanto into the Supreme Court — unafraid of the corporate giant’s farmer-crushing practices:

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Vernon H. Bowman v. Monsanto Co, a six-year-long legal battle between a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer and a multi-billion-dollar seed conglomerate that could have profound implications for the agriculture industry and the future of American intellectual property law.

The immediate dispute in the case is whether or not Bowman infringed on Monsanto’s patent protection when he sowed second-hand commodity soybeans from a grain elevator — some of which were the genetically modified RoundUp Ready variety produced by Monsanto — then saved the seeds from the plants that grew in his fields to sow again the following year. In agriculture lingo, the practice is known as “seed saving”; farmers had been doing it for millennia before Monsanto started demanding that farmers not do so with the company’s genetically modified, patented seeds. Monsanto has been notoriously aggressive about going after those who, like Bowman, failed to heed that agreement. The Center for Food Safety recently published a report showing that Monsanto has sued 410 seed-saving farmers for patent infringement since it started selling GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, and it has never lost a case in open court.

Bowman’s attorney, Mark P. Walters, argued Tuesday that his client was allowed to save seeds because Monsanto’s patent protection only extended to the seeds it sold, not their offspring, like those from the grain elevator.

But the justices seemed no more likely to agree with this line of reasoning than had any of the lower courts that had ruled in favor of Monsanto. Seconds after Walters began speaking, Chief Justice John Roberts jumped in with an emphatic rhetorical question:

“Why in the world,” he asked, “Would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?”

Back in 2010, I profiled a farmer named Scott McAllister whose life was utterly destroyed by Monsanto’s goon squad. If you want a refresher on what they normally do to farmers, go here.

(h/t Seth Price)
  • muselet

    Lawyers, please help me out here. It’s my understanding that trademarks must be aggressively protected or their holders will be deemed to have allowed the trademarks to lapse (which is why Rolls-Royce always sends cease-and-desist letters to even tiny companies describing themselves as “the Rolls-Royce of” something, and why Sony a couple of decades ago forced a beauty shop to change its name from Sony’s—even though the owner had been called Sony since she was a baby). Does the same principle apply to patents like this?

    Specifically, as I wondered on an earlier thread, is Monsanto actually making every reasonable effort to protect its patented material if it allows Roundup Ready soybeans to enter the commodity seed market? Shouldn’t Monsanto be protecting its patent by buying up all surplus RR soybeans? How far off-base am I?


  • SlapFat

    I read the entire transcript of Bowman vs. Monsanto and it’s pretty intriguing. The Justices were pretty rough with both sides in their questioning and, while I can’t claim to be objective on this case (not a fan of Monsanto), the verdict is something I’ll be very curious to hear about.

  • Draxiar

    Monsanto is truly fucking evil. Their practices and intimidation tactics are simply unredeemable and I hope someone plants a bomb in their headquarters and blows these shitsticks to hell.
    I question who is worse: Oil Companies, Monsanto, or Limp Bizkit. In any case, Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Destroy Monsanto (which is actually my micro on HuffPo).

  • nicole

    Go Farmer Bowman!

    I really hope that the president has the opportunity to add another liberal to the Supreme Court. That would change everything.

    Meanwhile, while Mr. Bowman may lose, at least he is not backing down, and Monsanto is looking like the corporate monster it really is.

  • IrishGrrrl

    I know nothing about patent law so this question may seem really, really stupid but…..regarding Robert’s question as to why would anyone spend money to improve seed…..if anyone could grow more and have as many seeds as they want…..why was the patent granted for such a thing in the first place? I mean, if it is unenforceable, which ultimately it really is. No matter how many farmers have been sued by Monsanto, I guarantee you there have to be a ton more that haven’t been caught. And setting aside the enforceable notion, why would a patent be granted for a process that is by it’s very nature progenerative? For example, in IT we have some AI programs that could spawn off child programs with some input and effort of a user. The science isn’t very far advanced yet but it is getting there. Let’s say that Microsoft has a patent on an AI that does this and a bunch of users put some data and effort and money into the AI so that it produces child programs. Those child programs retain some of the patented qualities of the parent AI but they are not, technically, the same. Do all the child programs that are being spun off retain the protection of the AI’s patent? What if those child programs, also with user input and effort, create more child programs? How about any second generation child programs and so on….

    It seems to me that any process that functions like that should be un-patentable (not a word, I know). The patent should only last for that original AI or seed in this case. The other generations should not. If Monsanto’s argument is that it would undermine it’s own business, then I would say that Monsanto shouldn’t have based it’s business on a process that shouldn’t have been “patentable” in the first place.

    Then again, I’m not a lawyer and I sure as hell don’t have the firepower of Monsanto.

    • trgahan

      I think your IT example is pretty close to what is happening here. But because most agribusiness is largely located in conservative pro-big business parts of the country, Monsanto gets court rulings in their favor or at least can bankrupt an offending farmer through endless litigation.

      The killer is that natural pollination/plant spread processes (bees, wind, birds, etc) inevitably spreads the Monsanto seed from one field to another. I have seen a documentary which they claim Monsanto sends people out to clandestinely test farmer’s fields that don’t buy their seed or at least didn’t buy it for that year. Monsanto then sues farmers where even just a portion of the crop contains plants with the company’s patented generic material regardless of how it got there.

      Maybe finally running up against someone who likely has nothing to lose and a lawyer willing to help is what we need against companies like Monsanto.

    • Mike Huben

      This is a gene patent, not an ordinary plant protection patent.

      In addition, it is about to expire in 2014.

  • trgahan

    This specific case, along with the Agribusiness/Seed patenting issue in general, is a great example of what always happens in an “unregulated free market” conservatives keep going on about.

    While keeping intellectual property/patent protection as legally strong as possible; someone will always be working to restrict the market in their favor. Obviously it takes a lot of money and resources to do it, so rarely does a lone farmer/entrepreneur achieve such an advantaged position or are able to sustain their monopoly in a court of law.

    In this case, companies like Monsanto, have been able to attack a key part of the agriculture supply chain and use a huge legal war chest to forcibly build a monopoly without legally being classifiable as a monopoly.