GovTrack’s Bill SummaryThis bill responds to farmer complaints that biotechnology companies have been restricting the use of their patented seeds to a single season. The bill would create a system to allow farmers to use the seeds past the first season at a price set by the government.
The communications director for the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kaptur (D-OH), said in a phone interview on Feb. 22, 2013, that she believed the biotechnology company Monsanto had come to dominate the seed industry in a disproportionate manner. “Monsanto became too big,” Steve Fought, the communications director, said. “Congresswoman Kaptur introduced the bill to correct what she saw as an imbalance.”
Here's how the system proposed by H.R. 193 would work:
- Farmers who want to retain seeds harvested from the planting of patented seeds would pay a fee set by the Secretary of Agriculture.
- The farmer would then be free of any contractual limitation on retaining the seed previously set by the biotechnology company.
- The fee would go into a Patented Seed Fund, which would later be distributed by the Secretary of Agriculture to the patent holders.
The issue of patents on genetically modified seeds is at the center of the case of Vernon H. Bowman v. Monsanto Co., currently being argued before the Supreme Court. Bowman, an Indiana farmer, was sued by Monsanto for planting the progeny of their patented soybean seeds without paying the company for a license.
Patent protections extend to multiple generations of a product that can replicate itself, such as seeds, Monsanto has argued. Lower courts ruled in Monsanto’s favor, rejecting Bowman’s claim that second-generation seeds are not covered by the company’s patent.
Mr. Fought said Rep. Kaptur has concerns about the ability of corporations to obtain patents on self-replicating articles, such as seeds and human DNA, allowing patent holders to claim property rights in perpetuity. But he said Rep. Kaptur recognized the importance of protecting intellectual property and wanted to avoid the constitutional issues that would arise from attempting to nullify patent rights.
Accordingly, she proposed the fee system described in the bill as a legal artifice. This system places the Department of Agriculture as an intermediary, giving it the discretion to set fees and apportion them to the companies “fairly,” Mr. Fought said, while leaving companies like Monsanto out of the payment process.
Rep. Kaptur represented a large swath of rural territory before the recent redistricting and was a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture in the previous Congress. She had heard complaints from farmers that Monsanto wasn’t charging for the use of patented seeds in Argentina, Mr. Fought said.
Rep. Kaptur previously introduced the bill in 2011, 2009 and 2004, but it has never made it out of committee.
As the Supreme Court deliberates the Bowman v. Monsanto case, Rep. Kaptur is in a “wait-and-see” mode with respect to her proposed legislation. If the court rules in Monsanto’s favor, Mr. Fought said, it may create positive momentum for the bill. Whatever the outcome, he noted, the issue of genetic information as intellectual property and the ethical questions it raises will continue to preoccupy us as a society for years to come.