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The basis for my question is what I learned from watching the enlightening and very disturbing movie "Food, Inc." The IMDB page on it is here .
Here's the situation. A farmer (Farmer A) wants to grow his own stock of produce (corn, beans, whatever). But his neighboring farms use (for example) Monsanto genetically modified (thus proprietary and patented) seed stock. As you might guess, winds blow and some seeds happen to blow into Farmer A's field. So Monsanto (as the movie documents) sues Farmer A for "stealing" their patented seed! From what I can tell, it essentially becomes a shakedown / coercion against the farmer to agree to purchase the GM seeds from this particular company or else lose his entire fortune trying to fight the company in a legal battle. Which of course is an impossible task, considering the financial resources of each party. Farmer A wants nothing to do with that company's seeds. But they manage to sue him for using it (against his will or intentions), then the result is he is forced to use it!

Where or how has our legal system failed here? What should or would happen in an Objectivist / rational capitalistic system? Something is very wrong here, and I wonder two things--how an Objectivist would propose fixing it, and (secondarily), why this isn't getting more attention from property rights advocates (on behalf of the "little guy", not the corporation).

asked Nov 16 '10 at 23:25

QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

QEDbyBrett ♦
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edited Nov 17 '10 at 10:03

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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Here is the relevant Wikipedia entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Canada_Inc._v._Schmeiser

Many of the details, such as the fact that the defendant knowingly saved and replanted the seed from the crops that he discovered were Roundup-resistant, make the debate less one-sided than your question (and presumably the documentary that you saw) implies.

(Nov 17 '10 at 11:30) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Thanks Andrew. That case is relevant, but has some important differences from the scenario I'm asking about. In the movie, they interview different farmers, not Schmeiser. He doesn't seem to have been very serious (or at least smart) about wanting to prevent use of the GM seeds. In the movie, the farmers are facing the threat of legal action as pressure to buy Monsanto products. It hasn't happened yet. Basically the company is saying "buy our seeds and enter a long-term contract or we'll sue you until you have no choice." What's an answer for that?

(Nov 17 '10 at 22:25) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

I'm not sure, but I'd like to see a source for the facts other than an activist documentary.

I have no doubt that patent law can be abused, but this dispute may hinge more on the details of Canadian or U.S. patent law than on the abstract principles of intellectual property (which is the level on which Objectivism would defend the existence of patents as such).

(Nov 18 '10 at 11:36) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

This website has the Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers Report . From the Executive Summary: To date [2005], Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers. The lawsuits involve 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies...Farmers have been sued after their field was contaminated by pollen or seed from someone else’s genetically engineered crop...

(Nov 18 '10 at 20:47) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

I'm not disputing the right of a person or company to own and profit from their intellectual property, or patents. Perhaps it's a question of the burden of proof? Still when it becomes a legal issue, here's another excerpt from the Executive Summary: "The odds are clearly stacked against the farmer: Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers."

(Nov 18 '10 at 20:50) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image
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It seems the onus of proof is on GM to show that the presence of their genetic strain in the farmer's field is due to illegal actions on his part, rather than natural forces such as wind, animals, etc. Just as Brett mentioned, in fact.

One possibility is that the farmer files a counter-suit complaining that GM is polluting his crops. That approach might get a lot of valuable media attention, as genetically-engineered crops are still a sensitive issue. He could require GM farms to create protections against the natural spread of their special seed, which, if they were forced to do so, would be extremely expensive for them--prevent wind dispersion or animal consumption that might transport through droppings...

It is wrong for GM to sue unless they can substantiate actual theft. It is wrong to use the legal system to coerce trade. It is fair and correct for GM to sue if neighboring farmers are in fact stealing from them.

answered Nov 20 '10 at 15:02

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦
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edited Nov 20 '10 at 15:05

Small point: "GM" is a generic abbreviation for "genetically modified"; the company that owns the patent here is Monsanto.

(Nov 20 '10 at 15:41) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 16 '10 at 23:25

Seen: 2,557 times

Last updated: Nov 20 '10 at 15:41