PERCY Schmeiser may appear to symbolize battles brewing between farmers and corporate interests in the area of biotechnology, but the result of his fight with Monsanto must be put in context.
This was not the landmark case needed to define and protect the rights of farmers. The judge carefully sidestepped the bigger questions farmers want answered.
Schmeiser’s defeat lodged in how much he knew about the seeds that grew on his land, and what he did with those seeds without permission from the company.
The judgment did not rule on the rights of farmers to keep companies from entering their fields to take tests, and it did not rule on the responsibility of a company for seed accidentally spread to other fields.
The ruling failed to tackle the validity of many details presented in court regarding farming practices, nor did it advise on the tactics used by the company to gain evidence.
The judge will leave it to others to separate fact from fiction and to rule on corporate responsibility. That might occur through civil actions.
Justice Andrew MacKay concentrated on the issue of patent infringement, and disallowed exemplary damages Monsanto could claim from Schmeiser.
As Martin Phillipson, a professor in intellectual property law said: “It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill patent law claim.”
Despite what a sullen Schmeiser and his lawyer said to the media, this case will not have vast implications that will devastate farmers internationally. Instead, it’s business as usual this spring.
Companies, including Monsanto, will continue to research genetically modified crops, but will likely have more confidence now when seeking compensation from farmers who have violated patents or technology-use agreements.
It was painful to watch Schmeiser use his reportedly scarce retirement fund in this legal battle over use of patented seed. The judge did not rule on how the seed arrived in the farmer’s field, intentionally or accidentally, and that was a key part of Schmeiser’s case.
The Schmeiser case has already generated mixed reaction from farmers. When 30,000 producers sign agreements to access patented seed and promise to respect those agreements, they expect to benefit from the tools they are provided.
They resent it if others attempt to illegally benefit from new technology.
But there is also sympathy for those who may unwillingly become participants in the controversy through seed accidentally sown on their land.
It is critical to deal with control of seed accidentally spread, and establish a company’s responsibility to help tackle the problem. Also required is greater protection of a landowner’s property rights that will also respect the patent rights of crop developers.
This case did not address these fundamental issues. Perhaps future court action will.