Sunday, 2 November 2003
Monsanto sues farmers for saving soybeans
Taking a page from the RIAA playbook, agriculture giant Monsanto Corp. has taken to suing farmers to enforce its patent on Roundup Ready® (RR) Soybeans. Monsanto developed the patented soybean seeds (bearing a trademarked name, no less) to resist its best-selling herbicide, Roundup®. The new plants allow farmers to apply more herbicide to control weeds without killing their crops. However, Monsanto does not simply sell the seeds. It licenses them, and the license terms prohibit saving seeds from one season for planting in the next. Never mind that saving seeds has been standard operating procedure in farming for the entire history of human agriculture.
I have no beef with Monsanto licensing its patented technology rather than selling outright the products based on it. However, it has done an inexcusably negligent job of informing farmers of the contents of the form contracts by which it sells RR soybeans. The New York Times (NYT) reports (Saving Seeds Subjects Farmers to Suits Over Patent) that farmers sign the contracts without reading them — believing they are the same standard seed-sale agreements they have signed in previous years. Although some farmers are aware of the $6.50 "technology fee" per sack of seeds, Monsanto appears to have made no effort to call attention to the anti-saving provision. Obviously, many farmers saved some seeds and replanted them in the next season, violating both the contract and Monsanto's patent. The NYT article says that many farmers are fighting the lawsuits, taking them all the way to judgment, and that the first is now up on appeal. It is only a matter of time before we get appellate-level decisions on the enforceability of these contracts under contract-of-adhesion and antitrust law.