Is It a Crime to Plant a Seed?

In a case reaching the Supreme Court, Monsanto fights a farmer to protect a seed's progeny

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Roger Charity / Getty Images

Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old farmer from rural Indiana, did something that got him sued. He planted soybean seeds. But Monsanto, the ag giant, insists it has a patent on the kind of genetically modified seeds Bowman used — and that the patent continues to all of the progeny of those seeds.

Have we really gotten to the point that planting a seed can lead to a high-stakes Supreme Court patent lawsuit? We have, and that case is Bowman v. Monsanto, which is being argued on Tuesday. Monsanto’s critics have assailed the company for its “ruthless legal battles against small farmers,” and they are hoping this will be the case that puts it in its place. They are also hoping the court’s ruling will rein in patent law, which is increasingly being used to claim new life forms as private property.

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Monsanto and its supporters, not surprisingly, see the case very differently. They argue that when a company like Monsanto goes to great expense to create a valuable new genetically modified seed, it must be able to protect its property interests. If farmers like Bowman are able to use these seeds without paying the designated fee, they argue, it will remove the incentives for companies like Monsanto to innovate.

Bowman is a character out of a populist movie — a modern-day Mr. Smith Goes to the Supreme Court. If he had bought the genetically modified Roundup Ready seeds directly from Monsanto, he would have been required to pay the company’s technology fee. But Bowman bought his seeds from a grain elevator, which sold him a mix usually used for livestock feed — a mix that happened to include seeds that were progeny of Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready. Bowman argued that these progeny seeds were not covered by Monsanto’s patent, so he had no duty to pay the company a fee.

Monsanto accused Bowman of patent infringement and won a $84,456 damage award. Rather than pay up or work out a settlement, Bowman decided to appeal — all the way to the Supreme Court. He told the Washington Post that “Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats.”

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The central issue in the case is whether patent rights to living things extend to the progeny of those things. Monsanto argues that its patents extend to later generations. But Bowman’s supporters — who include the National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition and the American Antitrust Institute — argue that Monsanto is trying to expand the scope of patents in ways that would enrich big corporations and hurt small farmers. They say that if Monsanto wins, the impact will extend far beyond agriculture — locking up property rights in an array of important areas. Knowledge Ecology International — a nonprofit intellectual-property group that backs Bowman — contends that the Supreme Court’s ruling could have “profound effects” on other biotech industries, “including those involving cell lines, DNA or RNA sequences, virus strains and microorganisms.”

Many people are troubled by how Monsanto does business — its market dominance, its hardball fee tactics. But as reasonable as these anti-Monsanto views may be, the company has a good record of winning cases like this. The federal appeals court that has already ruled in Bowman v. Monsanto sided with Monsanto. And the Obama Administration is arguing in the Supreme Court on Monsanto’s side.

If this were a Hollywood movie, the plucky old Indiana farmer would beat the profit-minded corporation before the credits rolled. But this is a real-life argument before a Supreme Court that has a well-earned reputation for looking out for the interests of large corporations. This case gives the court an opportunity to rein in the growing use of patents to protect genetically engineered crops and other life forms — but the court may well use it to give this trend a powerful new endorsement.

132 comments
KenJones
KenJones

Patents only last twenty years, some of Monsanto's have already expired. These could well inspire a whole generation of backyard GM inventors trying out ideas in their own fields and patenting themselves without attorneys, by simply rewriting Monsanto expired patents and adding in their own modifications. This can even even be done right now. These days you can do the whole patent process online, internationally. Even applying for a US Provisional patent is not the cheapest way to go, apply for a UK patent and you get a year to pay any fees and your UK Filing Date is good for your Non-Provisional US Patent. If nobody is interested in a year, just abandon your patent and it has cost you nothing. If someone is interested the royalty advance can pay the fees. A great cheap Amazon ebook which explains all this is DIY Patent Online, it includes links to search and filing sites and lists all the fees, plus you can even read some of it free. They also have a website but aren't trying to sell their services like most patent sites. Attorney's must love them. Populations need to be fed and until World population begins to contract, Monsanto is in business. However like all products Monsanto will hit a maturity barrier and that is when new backyard GM seed inventors, working in a similar way to Vernon Bowman and doing the patents themselves, could be in for a field day. Literally.


str8vision
str8vision

In a nation where catching rainwater is illegal in many areas, criminalizing the act of planting seeds shouldn't come as a big surprise to anyone.

Wayno
Wayno

Wayno

Simple solution don't buy GMO or ROUND-UP. Join "SEED SAVERS"!

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

A legal law framed up, in case goes against the interest of common people as like as farmers, the middle class ones (almost 80% of total population of the globe) that may please reconsidered adding positive amendment in the interest / welfare of the majority population of the world.

  - A.R.Shams's Reflection  -  Press & Online Publications

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

"Crime"?  -- patent infringement is a civil and not a criminal offense

makhdoomh
makhdoomh

Owning a genetic sequence? Well, what if I patent a particular shade of blue eyes. If that patent extends to genetics, then is the offspring of that person with blue eyes obligated to pay me for their blue eyes? if they refuse, am I allowed to blind that person?


Maybe all of the supreme court justices have blue eyes. It wouldn't be the first time....

Ma
Ma

Monsanto has sued (and put out of business) several seed washers, seed companies and farmers. Their claim  - those parties owned, grew or helped others own or grow seeds, that were the progeny of pollen blowing across miles, or being distributed by insects. They have far exceeded a simple contract signed by one farmer. Any farmer who grows their seed opens up all of his neighboring farmers and their neighboring farmers to enter into litigation, settlement or to be forced out of business by Monsanto. If this suit turns the wrong way, Monsanto will basically own a majority of farmland and crops in the US, or perhaps all of it.

BernieMooney
BernieMooney

It's an interesting argument. Bowman was a Monsanto seed user and was happy with them. He basically did an end run by using seeds that were commonly used for feeding livestock because he didn't want to pay full price for seeds that might not pan out in his second planting.  Bowman isn't exactly innocent. He knew what he was doing. I wonder how much of a issue that will be if the decision goes Monsanto's way?  

Melikeitalot
Melikeitalot

This suit is ridiculous!  The man signed a simple contract to abide by the yearly seed buying agreement and not cheat Monsanto.  Here you have all these basically ignorant comments like all all over the net, with cross pollinate baloney and etc....but it all boils down to a more innovative seed and a contract, with the ability of the farmer to easily pay, but greed set in.  If Monsanto were to lose, which I doubt, I guess they could just charge farmers an initial one time large fee, but I doubt they want to do that.

r343l
r343l

@keithkloor Blech. A good editorial on the patent case would talk about what happens if Bowman wins that apply to non-Monsanto patents.

sudsmobile
sudsmobile

@Devinder_Sharma @GMWatch @adamscohen D really frightening aspect is livestock DIRECTLY ingesting Roundup Ready Soyabean seeds! What horror!

SriramP
SriramP

The key to this is to create a legal obligations on Monsanto to ensure that its seeds do not corrupt other varieties by pollinating with such other varieties of seeds. For example a farmer growing non-GM corn can argue that (i) his product will get excluded from GM free markets; or (ii) he is ethically against GM but is being forced to grow GM, as a result of such pollution (due to cross-pollination) by Monsanto's seeds.

Monsanto & other biotech companies should be given patents only on seed varieties that are sterile and do not cross pollinate.

I'm sure, someone would have already argued along these lines. It will be interesting to see the justification given by Monsanto & accepted by the courts.

postindierock
postindierock

People need to OCCUPY the offices of Monsanto around the country.  Sick of this UN NATURAL, GMO laden junk they call food.  They lobby congress to pass laws that benefit them, not farmers, and pay to hide stories that prove that GMO food is dangerous and very bad for the natural enviroment and ecosystem.  

AdiBara91
AdiBara91

@TIME OPINION: Is planting a seed a crime ? http://t.co/0m0qCxNQ (via @timeideas) reminds me of bob marley's "i shot the sheriff"

OmgItsBettie
OmgItsBettie

@TIME @TIMEIdeas It's crazy how innocent farmers can get sued when either nature or Monsanto themselves spread their seeds to other farms.

supachicnic
supachicnic

Shame on you Monsanto! Disgraceful! Patented seeds!? RT@TIME: OPINION: Is planting a seed a crime ? http://t.co/QkmL68YE (via @timeideas)

OmgItsBettie
OmgItsBettie

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Nobody wants their nasty genetically engineered seeds! They need to be thrown into jail forever for making those available!

OmgItsBettie
OmgItsBettie

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Nobody wants their nasty genetically engineered seeds! They need to be thrown into jail forever to making those available!

OmgItsBettie
OmgItsBettie

@TIME @TIMEIdeas No! Monsanto is the one planting the seeds, and they should be fined $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.00 for it!

rbanta710
rbanta710

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Monsanto is in need of losing this one. Farmers need a voice more powerful than Monsantos lobbyists. Shame Obama supports

fringbird
fringbird

@TIME @timeideas It is only a crime if you plant it in someone's mind!

Kathy Chen
Kathy Chen

Mother Nature gives us everything for free. Businessmen genetically change everything, profiting from it. claiming property interests and then calling it an innovation. If there are any patent rights, the rights should be owned by Mother Nature, not the companies messing up with everything Nature has given us.