Monsanto already controls virtually the entire market for genetically engineered soybean seeds. And crops sown from Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds now cover more than half of the 72 million hectares on the globe that are planted with soybeans. Patents aren’t the only reason for this monopoly, but with the European patent upheld, Monsanto’s monopoly concentration will likely only increase in the future.Patents like this one are utter folly. Patent and copyright law has a vital role to play in the emerging global information economy. But the system was designed to provide incentive for new inventions; it was never intended to hand out monopolies on whole areas of research. Overly broad patents will lead to monopolies where we neither need nor want them. Similar problems are cropping up across the high-tech landscape: patents are literally killing AIDS victims in Africa by denying them access to affordable medicines even though we know how to make the drugs cheaply; absurdly broad e-commerce patents are tangling the World Wide Web; and overly expansive copyright laws threaten our ability to share information.
The kinds of excesses we’ve been seeing lately need not be foregone conclusions. The trick is for those at the high-tech frontier to help our legislators be farsighted in thinking about the public’s stake in intellectual property, building a system that equitably rewards new developments while at the same time providing a healthy environment for innovation. The good news is that many groups have begun to meet this challenge; among them, Creative Commons, the Public Library of Science, and Washington, DC-based Public Knowledge (I’m on their advisory board) are trying to map out a role for the public, just as the vibrant open-source-software community is doing much to stem the tide of proprietary control over software code.
Once we get beyond inane debates about whether intellectual property is “good or bad,” the task of setting reasonable limits on proprietary rights is not as hard as it may sound. But there’s a clear first step: quit handing out absurdly broad patents that allow corporate bullies to grab intellectual-property monopolies on our collective future.