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March 6, 2013
Taking Stock of the Farmer v Agribiz Case
IPWatch blog has a fairly neutral summary up following oral arguments in Monsanto v Bowman. My money has long been on Monsanto in this case, but I don't like that answer.
It seems that most of the parties in this case also don't like that answer, and for good and sensible reasons. I was particularly taken by Bowman's lawyer's argument that a finding for Monsanto would elevate patent rights over personal property rights. This is a powerful point and highlights some of the great contradictions we've built up in our current maximalist system. I wonder how my libertarian friends see this, as many of them are highly respectful of property rights, but also feel that government should not interfere in business market practices. Does the trump card of personal property rights in this case mean that Monsanto's business model must fall?
And if it does fall, what does that mean for the patent system in general? I can see no rational basis to distinguish a biological machine from a physical one and grant patent protection only to produces of the latter, just because of the composition of the machine. Our notion of what makes a "natural" object in the world versus an engineered object may also have to change as we learn more about "horizontal" DNA transfer (see here in Biology Online and here in a story about how blood-sucking insects may be part of a process of horizontal transfer in humans). So it's not a good solution to say "well, just don't allow patenting of biological machines".
It also seems clear from the summary that SCOTUS understands that the patent system's "exhaustion doctrine" isn't sufficient here, either. I suspect we're going to see this question come up again, soon, as we're not far from a world in which 3D printers can print out all their own parts, after which assembling the parts into another 3D printer that can self-replicate won't be far behind.
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