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Agribusiness giant Monsanto is back in court against seed-saving farmers, this time against 75-year-old Vernon Hugh Bowman of Indiana. Bowman was fined $84 456 for patent infringement after using a cheap mix of seeds bought from a neighbour which included seeds from Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready GMO variety. He has since won on appeal, but now faces Monsanto’s lawyer, former Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman at the Supreme Court, a fight which by all accounts isn’t going well for his side.

This suit alleges that Bowman infringed on their patents, while he’s arguing that since multiple generations have passed, the patent has been “exhausted”. He bought a cheap mix, late in the season for a second crop (once common, before GMO seeds hit the market) from a neighbour’s grain elevator. While he reasoned that some would be ‘Roundup Ready’, it’s hard to tell what benefits that would have granted without knowing how much of the grain in question would simply shrivel and die when sprayed.

Lawsuits over patented genetics have become quite common over the past few years. According to one study by the Center for Food Safety, there have been over 400 similar suits from Monsanto, a name now infamous for these types of tactics. Some, like (now famous) Percy Schmeiser, “stole” the genes via pollen carried onto their fields by the wind. To this end, Monsanto employs a force of private investigators, notorious for snooping around fields to look for illicit genetics, commonly known as the “seed police“. In Brazil right now, Monsanto is in court attempting to extend patent protection for Roundup Ready soy to 2014 (in line with the US), which expired in 2010 after two decades.

Cases like this give a clear picture of the intentions behind genetically modified foods. Rather than improving crops, these genes act like tiny flags, planted to claim genetic territory. Both through patent laws and genetic alterations which leave further generations of seed sterile (“terminator seeds”), corporations like Monsanto are using them to gain ownership of crops. Under this new regime, even the poorest farmers must pay for entirely new seed every year, imposing, in effect, a global, per-plant tax on agriculture.

There’s more than a little irony in the way that advocates of GMO foods insist genetic modification has been going on since the dawn of civilization. While selecting and saving the best seed from successive generations is a basic part of crop domestication (the very definition of agriculture), these methods and their genetic legacy are now under serious threat, largely because of GMO and hybrid seed. In America, Roundup Ready soy already makes up over 90% of all soy grown, with GMO cotton and corn well above 70%. Where India once had an almost uncountable number of rice varieties (estimates range into the hundreds of thousands), bred for centuries to be precisely attuned to local ecological and culinary needs, most are vanishing or have already disappeared thanks to the spread of industrialized farming and standardized seed genetics. This process has led to the loss of countless crop varieties – a loss of thousands of years worth of carefully cultivated genetics, in the name of a few genes added via laboratories.

In theory, the technology could be used for achieving better yields, drought-tolerance or nutrition. In practice, it’s been primarily used to increase crop tolerance for Roundup, an herbicide also sold by Monsanto. This is one of many ways that GMO crops are engineered to fit into a wider system of industrialized farming. Their standardized genetics allow for quick mechanical harvesting, they’re bred to withstand (and require) massive doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and they produce the kind of incredibly consistent product required for the indutrial processing of our supermarket foods. Economically, these technologies require very large farms to repay the vast capital costs (tractors, combines etc), which has led to the widespread dispossession of small farmers in both the First and Third Worlds. The combined effect has been to leave a large amount of the world’s agriculture under the control of corporations like Con-Agra, ADM, Dow and Monsanto.

“Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one, anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?” – Chief Justice John Robert

By framing the issue as one of “property” Monsanto is setting itself up as the victim. Left unmentioned is the total redefinition of “ownership” required to construct this absurd argument. Even digital “piracy” requires a conscious effort to make copies, but genetic data copies itself (making seeds just about the stupidest conceivable place to hide trade secrets). In this case, though, neither logic nor biology matter – this is about control. Like all “intellectual property”, these laws amount to little more than a back-handed attempt at legislating monopolies via lawsuit.

Why would anybody spend money to engineer better seeds if they knew their work would be shared? That’s a question to ask hundreds of generations of ancestors – without whom we wouldn’t have a single domesticated crop today. These genetics have been ‘open source’ since the Neolithic, only to be privatized within our own lifetimes, through an agreement of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. Those of us who actually grow or eat the food in question have not been consulted, and instead left to pay the price.

No matter what the court decides, it’s pretty clear who’s really stealing the soy.

“Intellectual Property” is a contradiction in terms. The notion of information, as solid, tangible and own-able property stretches the notions of ownership and property to entirely new and thoroughly ridiculous extremes. What these laws really accomplish is granting monopolies which relate to potentially valuable information (trademarks, patents etc). However, if they were to call them “Informational Monopoly” laws, they’d be a much harder sell to the public.

In one recent case, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, the world’s largest beer brewer, recently bought up a popular Chicago microbrew, 312, named after the local area code. Next, it went and trademarked the area codes of fifteen other cities, including Dallas, Denver, Washington DC and San Francisco. Whether they plan to introduce a wave of new trendy “urban” beers, or simply prevent others from doing the same is not known at this point. All we do know is that a beer corporation now owns part of the phone numbers of millions of Americans.

Another very public example would be Apple’s wide range of legal assaults lately over patents with competing smartphone and tablet manufacturers. Most recently, this has meant an exploding patent war with HTC, makers of various Android smart-phones (their main competitor). Apple’s goals are clear – they sell the most high-end, overmarketed and exclusive devices like this on the market, and if other manufacturers offer us similar options at lower prices, they’ll sell far less. Apple, as a corporation, relies very heavily on these kinds of controls to an extent which would embarrass even Microsoft. Simply being allowed to offer Apps (software) for iPhones and iPads involves an expensive and exclusive licensing arrangement. Not only has the company sued customers and hacked their devices for attempting to run their own software on Apple devices (a basic and established right of computer users – leading to an embarassing defeat for Apple). More recently they attempted to claim ownership of the term “App Store” and sued Amazon for using the term, a case it also lost.

A final recent story involves a coalition of America’s biggest Internet providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner, who’ve agreed to a new system designed at punishing file sharing by their customers. This agreement has been reached with Hollywood and the Music Industry, and will involve a series of six warnings escalating to web cutoffs and throttling. As the NYT notes, these large internet providers are seeking to sell this sort of content directly, so working with content providers benefits them in many ways.

Intellectual property is all about stretching the definition of “property” to include very abstract and amorphous concepts. It isn’t just land, things or money that can now be owned – everything from genes to phrases to three-character words and numbers can be “owned” and sold, rented or traded as commodities. And of course, because these are legal issues, they’re backed up by force (cops, courts, jails etc). Both the government and dominant corporations are major players in this game, as they always have been with more traditional forms of property and value.

The more stretched the definition of “ownership” becomes, the harder to justify it is in any form. Many of these laws grossly curb individual liberties, especially what we can do with our own property, in our own homes. On the other hand, they grant enormous amounts of control to powerful corporations, just like traditional resource laws. Do Canada’s logging companies “own” the lumber they take from public lands, at public expense? How about the prescious metals and other resources our mining companies extract from indigenous lands around the world? Is there any limit to what can be taken from us and sold back?

The wonderful thing about information is that it’s nearly infinitely reproducible. And that means that attempts to control it will always fall short. From seeds to software, we can share and mutually benefit from it without having to spend a penny. And that’s the real threat here. For those who make a living enforcing artificial scarcity of resources, there’s nothing more threatening than true abundance.

An army of pirates prepares for war today, led by the meta-ghost of Winston Churchill, against the forces of censorship and the governments of the world. Philip K Dick told us the future was going to be weird.

The Pirate bay, the world’s most infamous Bit-torrent search engine, is calling on supporters to take up virtual arms against the growing forces of internet censorship. And to do it, they’re paraphrasing Churchill himself. The Pirate Bay, a site which has always been explicitly political in outlook, has become a lighting rod for opposition to internet censorship. They’ve gone to court and even helped form “Pirate Parties” in a number of nations, which managed to win a Sweedish seat in the European Parliament. They won 3198 votes in last week’s Canadian federal election.

This move has been largely prompted by calls in the EU for a private European internet capable of censoring “inappropriate” content, much like the Great Firewall of China. Worldwide, many nations, including our own, are instituting broad new laws criminalizing “piracy” and restricting access to content on the internet. This comes of course in light of recent internet-powered revolts in Africa and the Middle East, and the general scourge of Wikileaks. The internet has become established to the point where it’s allowing people to challenge power in frightening ways, and power is responding with a crackdown.

How this war will be fought, if it happens at all, will likely begin in the now-familiar manner of massive DDOS attacks, such as those Anonymous has been using to traumatize governments and corporations for some time now. The response will come thorough mercenary hackers and trumped up court charges, in a manner which is also now all too familiar. But where will it go from there? Can an online campaign make the jump into real-world direct action, such as a peaceful occupation of a corporate head office or the CRTC? Or a far more devastating series of online attacks, which cripple networks and scuttle companies?

Pressure has been building for some time now. On one hand, there’s a large chunk of the world’s established elite, and on the other a large chunk of global popular opinion. These new laws are massively unpopular, and those in opposition tend to be among the most tech-saavy of our age. Whether this war happens now or later, the future of the internet may be at stake for both sides.

Richard M. Stallman was one of the founding members of the Free Software movement, and one of the original programmers in what would become Linux today (a name he hates). He is a passionate critic of software patent laws, as well as other restrictive computing laws and practices.

Software patents are a joke, Literally. Most programmers detest them, for the avalanche of bureaucracy it drops on them (even a few lines of code you thought were original can get you sued). It appears that a number of the patents in the new Oracle/Apple suit were written at Sun in a secret cynical competition to get the most ridiculous patent approved – and sadly, many were.

These laws fail on every front. They’re not popular with producers or consumers. They add enormous amounts of money to the cost with very little demonstrable benefit. And they have all the moral basis of Feudalism. I’d tell y’all to just go out and break them at will, but everybody already is, almost daily. The one exception of course is the Linux crowd – we don’t have to break ’em – all our software’s free already.

Richard Stallman speaking at the University of San Francisco (Google Video, one hour). This was the shortest and most passionate of the speeches of his I found – if you want to hear more, there’s plenty of llinks to 2-hour+ talks.

End Software Patents – Massive collection of resources and arguments against software patents.

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