Intellectual Property Food

The GIF patent expired in America today. The right to create one of the most often-used image formats in the world has reverted to the public domain.

The headlines for this event fruitfully collided with the headlines of another intellectual property issue — America whining about Europe’s policies on genetically modified food. The intellectual property angle of geneticly modified food almost never gets brought up publicly in America. Usually a shill for agribusiness rants about the complete safety of GM crops, and that’s about it. Of course safety is not at all the first thing on their minds: [nyt]

The Bush administration and agricultural businesses view the [European] policy as simple protectionism because American companies, which dominate the biotechnology industry,would benefit most from lifting the ban. Without it, American companies would export about $300 billion more in corn each year than they do now, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Although the debate about GM crops is partially about the remote prospect of catastrophic ecological devistation, it is actually about who gets to own the patent on corn. A struggle over who will control the code for food. Right now, this is far more looming threat than the mere destruction of all agriculture.

We’ve seen how corporate owners act when confronted with the duplication of mere music-information. They blame the massive flaws of their oligarchic business model on the file trading of teenagers, which makes them feel more than justified in unleashing both rabid lawsuits and guerrilla tactics. The RIAA’s knee-breaker desperation seemed to know few boundaries, but just recently, senator Orrin Hatch found a way to take it up a notch. This guardian the Constitution decided to lay his bat-shit craziness on the table and openly suggested that the computers of copyright violators should be hacked and destroyed. Among other egregious offenses, such corporate vigilanteism would be a violation of recent anti-terrorism laws. A United States senator just suggested that terrorism is okay for intellectual property owners.

In this environment, and as genetic information increasingly becomes just more information, how will the corporate owners of the food-codes behave? How will these copy protection methodologies look when translated into the global food supply?

There was a little discussion about this back in the late 90’s when Monsanto was trying to market the “terminator gene” — a copy protection scheme for it’s seeds. Or rather, it’s patented intellectual property. Monsanto had to back down on that one, at least publicly. In October of 1999, they said they wouldn’t commercialize “sterile seed technology.” The BBC reported on Monsanto’s public statement:

The letter said: “Though we do not yet own any sterile seed technology, we think it is important to respond to those concerns at this time by making clear our commitment not to commercialise gene protection systems that render seed sterile.”

The technology might still be used in internal research, the company said. And the genes could help create plants in which certain characteristics can be switched on and off.

Andrew Simms of Christian Aid, a development charity, said the move was a major reverse: “Terminator technology was the lynchpin of a strategy to protect corporate royalties in developing countries.

“Up until last year, the US Department of Agriculture [who own a key patent] expected that within a short period of time you would not be able to find seeds that did not use terminator technology.”

Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said the move was an attempt by the food giant to win favour in the press. “It is only a gesture and it will cost them nothing. There is nothing to stop them introducing it at a later date.”

And apparently nothing was stopping anyone else from using similar copy protection ideas. Syngenta planted a test crop of terminator plants in England in 2001. The Institute for Science and Society recently examined the current state of “terminator” copy protection technologies and found that several are being used right now. But they also found that it’s getting harder to get information about what’s being planted.

Aside from the actual technology of genetic copy protection, corporations are nevertheless vigorously enforcing their intelectual property rights over genetic code, even when they pollute the crops of farmers not using their seeds.

A Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser had been planting canola in Saskatchewan for about 50 years. Around 1998, some investigators from Monsanto noticed that his canola fields were polluted with pollen from neigboring fields of genetically modified canola or maybe from passing trucks. The farmer had not planted any Monsanto seed, but his crops contained Monsanto’s patented genetic material due to cross-pollenization. Since the farmer had not signed a Technology Use Agreement for the tainted food he was growing, Monsanto sued the farmer for patent infringement.

Monsanto outlined their request for patent infringement seeking damages totaling $400,000. This included a list of civil damages, including about $250,000 in legal fees, $105,000 in profits they feel Schmeiser made on the 1998 crop, $13,500 ($15 an acre) for technology fees and $25,000 in punitive damages.

The Canadian court ruled against the farmer.

In a key part of the ruling , the judge agreed a farmer can generally own the seeds or plants grown on his land if they blow in or are carried there by pollen — but the judge says this is not true in the case of genetically modified seed.

The case is on appeal…

Critics attacking an anti-GM policy can continue to scornfully repeat that the food itself is perfectly safe. It’s even true that there’s only a very very remote chance that all terrestrial plant life would be wiped out by a genetic oopsie-daisy. But there are immediately tangible effects of forcing copy protected food on the world. Oddly enough, the pro-GM crowd seems to avoid the issue entirely…

And that GIF patent? Still valid in Canada, Europe and Japan for another year.