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Can one patent life and living organisms?

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My botany professor has been showing my class a pretty interesting movie regarding the effect of genetically engineered crops on health and society. One of the main topics dealt with the food company Monsanto, who have been producing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and seeds that are resistant to pesticides such as RoundUp. A particular interesting issue that was brought up was that Monsanto tried to patent one of their genetically modified seeds, claiming that because they modified it they in essence created a new product that was their property. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that seeds could be patented. Since then, Monsanto has begun placing patents on all seeds that do not currently have one. Does Monsanto have the right to do this? Sure, they did technically create a new 'product', but seeds are still living organisms. Can living organisms be owned?

The video also documented farmers who, unknown to them, had plants growing in their fields that were RoundUp resistant, and featured traits of Monsanto produced GMOs. These seeds were not purchased by the farmers, rather they resulted in cross-breeding between Monsanto seeds from other farms and trucks that were blown into non-GMO fields, creating hybrid plants. Monsanto, finding out about this, sent scientists to test these crops (against the farmers will and knowledge, as no farmer knew testers were on their land until they received a lawsuit, which is highly illegal and unethical) and sued these farmers for patent infringement. Even though the farmers did not intend to or take part in the actual cross-breeding of the seeds, the court still ruled in favor of Monsanto, claiming that the patent for the seeds holds strong in examples of cross-breeding because the traits of the patented seed are present in the new plant. While this is technically legal, is the patent law itself wrong and immoral? How can one patent an organism when the life and outcome of said organism is unpredictable? Plants constantly undergo change and evolution, so does Monsanto have the right to own any byproduct of their patented seed?

This also raises an interesting precedent regarding designer babies (genetically altered fetuses) and other bio-engineered animals or people. Can a company patent a clone or a result of cell/embryonic research? If the courts rule in favor of patenting plants, what is to stop corporations from patenting people? The precedent has been set that living organisms can be owned.

For more information regarding the film, here is the website: http://www.thefutureoffood.com/

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Three comments I would like to make on this.

Can living organisms be owned?

umm... yes. Last time I checked, hundreds of pets around the world are "owned." all domestic animals and, yes, self-owned plants in a garden are the exclusive right to the owner of the property.

Monsanto, finding out about this, sent scientists to test these crops (against the farmers will and knowledge, as no farmer knew testers were on their land until they received a lawsuit, which is highly illegal and unethical)

No question of legality here, the scientists should have asked permission from the farmers to test their plants (if that's actually what happened, since this statement is a blatant ad hominem). Likewise, the company put a patent on their specific breed-type and therefore it would need to be proved in court that the farmers either stole the product or mimicked the patent without the owners permission (but i do understand the judges difficulty on determining a case like this, the legality being so difficult to determine)

This also raises an interesting precedent regarding designer babies (genetically altered fetuses) and other bio-engineered animals or people. Can a company patent a clone or a result of cell/embryonic research? If the courts rule in favor of patenting plants, what is to stop corporations from patenting people? The precedent has been set that living organisms can be owned.

PS: slippery slope fallacy in these statement

Yep, because nothing seperates man from animal, nevermind the thousands upon thousands of technical achievements, the products of a rational mind, that no animal could replicate. No, a company could not have a patent or ownership of an INDIVIDUAL, because this is far beyond the range of morality and no one would stand for it (let alone allow the patent). that doesn't mean that a specific method of cloning or genetic manipulation couldn't be patented, but the children themselves would not be allowed to be patented.

Living organisms have been owned for thousands of years, this precedent is not new. Ownership of living organisms has been around since man began to domesticate animals and plant farms.

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The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that seeds could be patented. Since then, Monsanto has begun placing patents on all seeds that do not currently have one. Does Monsanto have the right to do this? Sure, they did technically create a new 'product', but seeds are still living organisms. Can living organisms be owned?
1: I own my dogs and my tomato plants. 2: Of course yes. 3: Substitute "transistor" for "seed" -- would you have the same doubts? What is it about the concept of "ownership" or "patent" that would lead you to think that you couldn't properly hold such a patent?

Now possibly, if you discovered -- not invented -- a tropical fruit, then that should not be the object of a patent (I haven't fully thought through the matter but I don't think that it should be -- or would be).

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There is a long history of plant patents based on cross-breeding the old-fashioned way, long before genes were even discovered.

A patent is infringed when another makes use of the invention without permission of the patent holder. It doesn't matter how that situation comes about.

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Patents protect technologies. When Thomas Edison patented the light bulb, his patent did not secure him ownership of the light bulbs he produced; he already owned them by virtue of having produced them. What the patent secured was an intellectual property of his: his knowledge that a way of combining materials results in a useful product.

Similarly, Monsanto's patent does not give them ownership of the living organisms in question; they already own them because they have produced them. The patent means that Monsanto, by having made the intellectual effort that resulted in the knowledge of this technology, has earned the right to use it, and that no other producer may copy it for a period of 20 years.

Now, if it's true that the farmers in question did not deliberately use Monsanto's technology, then its clear that they have not infringed the patent. Ensuring that the genes stay within plants under Monsanto's control is entirely Monsanto's responsibility; just like you cannot sue your neighbor for overhearing a copyrighted piece of music that you are performing, you cannot sue your neighbor for seeds that were blown on their property from your field.

However, the answer to whether Monsanto has a right to patent genetic modifications that it has invented is definitely: YES.

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Now, if it's true that the farmers in question did not deliberately use Monsanto's technology, then its clear that they have not infringed the patent. Ensuring that the genes stay within plants under Monsanto's control is entirely Monsanto's responsibility; just like you cannot sue your neighbor for overhearing a copyrighted piece of music that you are performing, you cannot sue your neighbor for seeds that were blown on their property from your field.

P.S.: That said, I do think Monsanto has a right to ask the farmers to clear the genes from their plants, but any costs involved in this have to be born by Monsanto. The objective is to ensure justice, which means that 1. the farmers should not pay for a mistake they did not make; 2. Monsanto should, despite their mistake, be able to continue enjoying their exclusive right in the technology, if they are willing to pay the costs of rectifying the mistake.

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If the courts rule in favor of patenting plants, what is to stop corporations from patenting people? The precedent has been set that living organisms can be owned.

You are confused about the difference between owning a patent on the DNA of a living organism and owning the organism itself. The DNA is information, the organism is a particular physical instance of that information. It's like the difference between owning a physical copy of a book and owning the copyright of that book. If you got a custom-made designer body, you might own your body without owning the DNA to it. If you want to argue against patents and copyrights, fine, just don't confuse intellectual property with material property.

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The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that seeds could be patented. Since then, Monsanto has begun placing patents on all seeds that do not currently have one.

How can seeds found in nature be patented? Or does "all seeds that do not currently have [a patent]" just refer to all of the new seeds Monsanto produced?

Regardless, I have a related question. The DNA in human cells has a specific sequence, but suppose only one company had successfully decoded it. This information would constitute intellectual property. Would they be able to patent it? Consequences might include suing other companies also attempting to decode it.

Edited by AulusAemilius

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How can seeds found in nature be patented? Or does "all seeds that do not currently have [a patent]" just refer to all of the new seeds Monsanto produced?

Those seeds are a result of specific crosses or genetically modified so they would not otherwise exist in nature.

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A particular interesting issue that was brought up was that Monsanto tried to patent one of their genetically modified seeds, claiming that because they modified it they in essence created a new product that was their property. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that seeds could be patented. Since then, Monsanto has begun placing patents on all seeds that do not currently have one. Does Monsanto have the right to do this? Sure, they did technically create a new 'product', but seeds are still living organisms. Can living organisms be owned?

This is incorrect. One cannot patent discoveries in nature. One patents changes that one makes to it in order to give it a new trait or productive capability. This is a very common legal interpretation in biotech and genetics. You patent an invention, not a thing you find. That patent gives you the sole right to practice and/or sell that invention. A modified seed is an invention. The process by which to make the modified seed is an invention.

The fact that your invention happens to produce copies of itself makes it extremely difficult to manage that right, but that fact does not nullify the right. The fact that something is alive is not the key characteristic that imparts to it a "state of naturalness".

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I have a question on this subject in particular. Is it possible to own the DNA of an organism? especially when only a few genes are changed out of tens of thousands

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I have a question on this subject in particular. Is it possible to own the DNA of an organism? especially when only a few genes are changed out of tens of thousands

It is possible to own the organism, if you created it. That means people can't make the same organism without your permission. That includes the DNA.

One thing you cannot do is stop people from knowing what you're doing (unless you can keep it a secret). So someone might know the information contained in the DNA of the organism you own, he just can't use it to make the same organism. As for how much he can rely on his knowledge of your organism, that depends (on specifics, and knowledge beyond mine, in the field -- I'm sure there is an objective way of preserving everyone's rights to their own creation, without limiting others' right to create as well).

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What if the GM plant overgrows to the property of other farmers?

So, let's say Monsanto patents the seeds, and no one else can produce them in a lab and sell them. But let's say the plants cross-pollenate and through Monsanto's negligence of allowing this feature, grow outside the places Monsanto sold the plant to.

I'd say someone has no right to either harvest or sell the seeds of that plant, if it can be proven. But Monsanto, or the negligent farmer, would have to pay damages for the removal of that plant, and the losses therefore incurred.

I'm thinking that if I leave my car on your property, I have an obligation to remove it, but you by no means own my car.

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there have been a number of cases where farmers have not bought Monsanto seed, but saved seed that didn't have a copyright. The problem comes in when their crops are contaminated by a neighbor farmer's pollen who had bought seed from Monsanto.

Under current law, Monsanto can sue and win, forcing farmers to buy Monsanto seed anyway; never mind that most farmers couldn't even afford the legal fees. Hence the conflict...

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there have been a number of cases where farmers have not bought Monsanto seed, but saved seed that didn't have a copyright. The problem comes in when their crops are contaminated by a neighbor farmer's pollen who had bought seed from Monsanto.

Under current law, Monsanto can sue and win, forcing farmers to buy Monsanto seed anyway;

Why is it relevant whether they could afford the legal fees? I doubt there even are any fees for defending one's case when sued.

Also, can you link to a Court decision forcing farmers to buy Monsanto seeds because their crops were contaminated? That's hard to believe.

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Why is it relevant whether they could afford the legal fees? I doubt there even are any fees for defending one's case when sued.

I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. The costs of defending yourself in court are huge. This is one reason that even the threat of legal action allows large organizations with tons of resources at their disposal to intimidate people who haven't necessarily done anything wrong; the big guys can drag proceedings out forever. Of course, if you WIN your court case, then you can hold the plaintiff liable for your fees, but that could take years, and in the meanwhile you are being bled dry by lawyer and court costs and might even go bankrupt in the process. So yes, being sued is a nightmare even if you are completely innocent unless you can prove that fact in court FAST. And Reason help you if you're up in court against the government...then you're REALLY screwed.

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Why is it relevant whether they could afford the legal fees? I doubt there even are any fees for defending one's case when sued.

Also, can you link to a Court decision forcing farmers to buy Monsanto seeds because their crops were contaminated? That's hard to believe.

It is relevant because they are being forced (bullied) into using Monsanto's seeds instead of having the choice otherwise. Your ignorance here is astounding. To defend yourself in court, you have to have certain documents and know the pertinent laws and similar cases. Hence, unless you are one, you have to hire a lawyer. Farmers that barely break even as it is simply have no cash at hand for these fees.

Simply google "Monsanto Sues Farmer". Here's one: http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/en/2001/2001fct256/2001fct256.html

[92] Thus a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell.

So when contamination happens, Monsanto owns the plant and can sue for patent infringement if the farmer didn't buy the seed from them and sign an agreement.

Bt genes have been found in wild teosinte, does Monsanto own these plants too?

I'm for choice, but here, farmer's don't have it.

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CAn you own living organisms? Since birth we own organisms living inside our body without which we'd die. We also own pets. The problem arises with patents and whether you can patent a genetic sequence, such as a disease or an enzyme, or a whole species.

When you are creating a "new" animal or organism, I believe no problem is presented - except the puiblic health issue of it being potentially hazardous, but that's another issue.

When you discover or descipher a genetic sequence of an existing living organism, like a bacteria of which millions might already be infected, then the answer would be no.

If you descipher why objects fall to the ground when dropped, you can own the book Principia but not Gravity itself.

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So when contamination happens, Monsanto owns the plant and can sue for patent infringement if the farmer didn't buy the seed from them and sign an agreement.

That's what you got out of that ruling? Really? Because it says the exact opposite.

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The farmer has the choice to not use seeds that aren't his.

Monsanto is imposing a cost upon the farmer against the farmer's consent, because the farmer ordinarily saves seed to plant the next season's crop instead of buying them. This is an initiation of force.

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Monsanto is imposing a cost upon the farmer against the farmer's consent, because the farmer ordinarily saves seed to plant the next season's crop instead of buying them. This is an initiation of force.

I was specifically responding to the case the Mikee was referring to. It consisted of an individual who had his fields infected by Monsanto seeds and continued to use them after he had the knowledge of the infection. To respond to your statement, everyone who purchases from Monsanto signs an agreement that they will not replant the seeds after the season they are purchased for. Maybe this is not "fair", but the fact is the farmers knew this before they ever completed a transaction with Monsanto. Correct me if I'm wrong since my knowledge of Monsanto only consists of ~5 hours of research.

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