The Supreme Court is hearing a case today involving a lawsuit brought by Monsanto against an Indiana farmer it accuses of violating the patent on its genetically modified seeds.
Some background, via The New York Times:
With his mere 300 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat, Vernon Hugh Bowman said, “I’m not even big enough to be called a farmer.”
Yet the 75-year-old farmer from southwestern Indiana will face off Tuesday against the world’s largest seed company, Monsanto, in a Supreme Court case that could have a huge impact on the future of genetically modified crops, and also affect other fields from medical research to software.
At stake in Mr. Bowman’s case is whether patents on seeds — or other things that can self-replicate — extend beyond the first generation of the products.
It is one of two cases before the Supreme Court related to the patenting of living organisms, a practice that has helped give rise to the biotechnology industry but which critics have long considered immoral. The other case, involving a breast cancer risk test from Myriad Genetics, will determine whether human genes can be patented. It is scheduled to be heard April 15.
What happened is that Bowman planted two fields, one with Monsanto seeds, the other with “commodity” seeds he bought from a grain elevator. These latter seeds are a general mixture that other farmers sell from their harvests. However, many of these commodity seeds are either Monsanto seeds, or those that are genetic derivatives of Monsanto seeds. Meaning, they’ve cross pollinated. Because that’s what plants do.
As the Times notes, agricultural groups are siding with Monsanto. So too universities fearful that a decision against the biotech firm could affect funding incentives for research.
Software makers are also looking on with interest. Note that the case centers on things that can “self-replicate”. Back to the Times:
BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file.
Over in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen notes that Monsanto has sued almost 150 farmers in 27 states. He goes on to write:
Monsanto says it is merely enforcing valid contracts, and protecting its hard-fought patents, and that it has a right to do so aggressively. However, the result of these attempts at market control, the [Center for Food Safety] noted, is “dramatic increases in the price of seeds. From 1995-2011, the average cost to plant one acre of soybeans has risen 325 percent; for cotton prices spiked 516 percent and corn seed prices are up by 259 percent.”
Over at the FJP we have a few videos from an interview we conducted with Micha X Peled, a documentary director who’s latest film, Bitter Seeds, follows a crisis in India where the foreign monopoly on the local seed market has inflated prices and brought on massive local debt. The situation has become so dire that, on average, a farmer kills himself every thirty minutes. You can view those interviews here.
Because like the other cases brought against hackers across the country, the case against Aaron isn’t just about technology providing new means for people to act independently and enact democracy. It isn’t even really about justice and national security. It’s about a broader, systemic battle.
It’s about power.
We were on the brink of changing the world before we got stuck in this legal muck.
Michael Phillips, founder of a voice recognition software company called Vlingo, on being sued in 2008 for patent infringement.
At the time, Vlingo was in partnership discussions with Apple and Google but both stopped negotiations because of the suit.
While Vlingo was eventually exonerated, it cost the company $3 million in legal fees and they eventually agreed to be bought by the company that sued them.
The New York Times, The Patent, Used as a Sword.
In the smartphone industry, according to the article, ”as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years — an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions.”
There are a number of stories about tech startups building products and services around a platform like Twitter only to have the floor drop out under them when the platform decides to change access to its APIs.
Less talked about are content creators and companies that utilize, grow and depend on such platforms as an integral part of their business.
Enter The Cool Hunter, which grew its Facebook presence to 788,000 fans, relied on content posted there to engage audiences and drive people back to its site, and did all this successfully until… the floor dropped out under them.
Facebook deleted the fan page for what it alleges were repeated copyright violations.
In a blog post, Cool Hunter founder Bill Tikos claims innocence and expresses the overwhelming frustration he’s had trying to get hard answers to the basic question he’s trying to ask: What have we done wrong?
Eight weeks ago, our Facebook (FB) page (facebook.com/thecoolhunter) with all of its content and our 788,000 fans – resources we have created and nurtured meticulously over the past five years - was gone.
Not blocked or invisible, but completely gone. Disabled. “Page does not exist.” No explanation, flimsy warnings, no instructions on what to do next. None of our numerous attempts to rectify the situation and resurrect the page have worked.
And because we suspect there are other businesses in the same bind, we are writing this to seek help and encourage open conversation. This is not a minor problem. This is a huge issue and potentially fatal to businesses. We feel that FB must change its one-sided, secret policies and deal with us, and others like us, openly and fairly.
Tikos claims that there were only two copyright infringing instances, writing, “But even if FB disagrees with the images we posted, are two images enough to kill our account with no chance of recourse?”
The Next Web reached out to Facebook for clarification and was told that there were “repeat” infringements and that the social network reviewed the material. That is, it wasn’t an automated process. Furthermore, Facebook claims to have given The Cool Hunter multiple warnings.
While we can’t arbitrate a he said, she said case, this is a broad warning to brands operating on platforms to interact with their audiences.
Facebook does have a granular copyright process where holders can file notices that their content or trademarks have been infringed. It works like the takedowns on YouTube. Yes, there are great flaws in that process. Namely, the false copyright claims by major copyright holders (takedowns of NASA’s public domain Curiosity footage comes to mind) and the long process a poster goes through to prove his or her content is legitimate.
Still, having one content object removed is better than having the entire history of your interaction on a platform disappeared.
Painful as it is, here’s a reminder to read the fine print. — Michael
When SOPA-PIPA blew up, it was a transformative event. There were eight million e-mails [to elected representatives] in two days. People were dropping their names as co-sponsors within minutes, not hours…
These bills are dead, they’re not coming back. And they shouldn’t… I think we’re better served by sitting down [with the tech sector and SOPA opponents] and seeing what we agree on.
Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, during a talk at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club earlier this week. Dodd was a US Senator for 30 years before becoming the MPAA’s top lobbyist.
Two things came across my feed today. They’re unrelated to one another but demonstrate just how far apart people are who think about these things.
Patents first, via Slashdot:
“The most recent call for curtailing patents comes not just from an unexpected source, the St. Louis Fed, but also in its most basic form: total abolition of all patents. Via the Atlantic Monthly: a new working paper (PDF) from two members of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, Michele Boldrin and David Levine, in which they argue that while a weak patent system may mildly increase innovation with limited side-effects, such a system can never be contained and will inevitably lead to a stifling patent system such as that presently found in the U.S. They argue: ‘…strong patent systems retard innovation with many negative side-effects. … the political demand for stronger patent protection comes from old and stagnant industries and firms, not from new and innovative ones.”
And flip all of that entirely on its head and we have a former US copyright chief arguing that disruptive media technologies should require congressional approval before being allowed to come to market.
One of the reasons why we live in such an innovative society is that we’ve (for the most part) enabled a permissionless innovation society — one in which innovators no longer have to go through gatekeepers in order to bring innovation to market. This is a hugely valuable thing, and it’s why we get concerned about laws that further extend permission culture. However, according to the former Register of Copyrights, Ralph Oman, under copyright law, any new technology should have to apply to Congress for approval and a review to make sure they don’t upset the apple cart of copyright, before they’re allowed to exist. I’m not joking.
Oman’s opinion become known when he filed an amicus brief (PDF) in a case where television networks are suing Aereo, the Barry Diller-backed startup that creates a device that lets you stream TV to your networked screens.
While neither position is policy, and copyright and patents are two entirely different things, these two articles show the fierce legal battles going on between potential disruptors and the potentially disrupted.
Google said it had received copyright removal requests for over 4.3 million Web addresses in the last 30 days, according to the company’s transparency report. That is more than it received in all of 2009.
Amy Chozick, New York Times. Under Copyright Pressure, Google to Alter Search Results.
The News: Beginning next week Google will update its search algorithms to prioritize Web sites with “legitimate” content over those that have been identified as having multiple, valid complaints over copyright infringement.