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November 02, 2003

If You Think RIAA Suits are Evil...

How about Monsanto suing its farmer customers?

Here's the deal. Many buy seeds from Monsanto and other companies to grow crops.

But if they dare to save some seeds at the end of the harvest for replanting, they get sued for patent infringement.

Saving seeds to restore life in the field at the next planting is the most basic rule of agriculture, but Monsanto is winning big lawsuits to prevent farmers from doing so.

Here is the outcome of giving patents for living things-- the very efficiency of life, that the product of a growing harvest yields seeds that can be regrown, is prohibited and banned.

This is why "file sharing" or replanting patented seeds are not equivalent to conventional theft.

When you steal a car or a candy bar, that means that someone else is poorer, and society gains no new wealth from your action. But in the case of patented or copyrighted goods, "theft" means no loss to the producer and greater wealth overall in society.

Intellectual property theft, in market terms, is economically efficient-- the more that happens, the more wealth that exists in society. If someone cannot afford to purchase it and does not steal the song or the seeds, society ends up poorer for that lack of theft.

Now, that's not the end of the story, since while once a patented or copyrighted object is produced, theft -- i.e. uncontrolled copying -- is economically efficient, you still need to encourage the production of the good in the first place.

So enforcing intellectual property rights may sacrifice economic efficiency and short-term societal wealth in order to create economic incentives for producers of those goods.

Which may work, but recognize the economic tradeoff. And recognize that the goal should therefore be to create the weakest intellectual property rights possible that still produce the incentives to produce the music or patented goods desired.

Every law that needlessly tightens copyright or patent laws is a destroyer of economic wealth.

So before we prevent the most natural, productive acts possible, such as replanting a field, we should really be sure of its economic value before handing Monsanto and company more power in our courtrooms.

Some links on activism around IP issues:

  • Consumer Project on Technology
  • Global Trade Watch on IP rights
  • The New Farm on patents
  • Michael Perlman on the Political Economy of Intellectual Property

    Posted by Nathan at November 2, 2003 09:13 AM