Settling the Matter - Part 5

By E. Freeman 11/11/2008

Editor’s Note: The following article is the fifth in a series of five articles on Monsanto’s seed patents, patent infringement policy and legal actions. For other articles in the series, check the sidebar.

If you are familiar with Monsanto and its policy of trait stewardship enforcement, as outlined by the first four articles in this series, then you may be familiar with names such as Pilot Grove, Gary Rinehart and Maurice (Mo) Parr. These names reflect the best-known instances in which Monsanto has enforced its seed patents, and have received attention in the national media.

But these cases do not show the whole picture when it comes to Monsanto’s policy enforcement. In fact, since 1997, Monsanto has gone to trial over seed patents only nine times.

This number is emphasized even more if you add the fact that only 147 lawsuits have been filed in 18 years of patent enforcement, and almost 1,000 matters have been settled out-of-court.

“Most of the cases are never filed,” Scott Baucum, Monsanto trait stewardship lead, said. “Most of the time we find that we’ll go knock on the farmer’s door and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, you caught me. Let’s get it behind us.’ And we just settle it with them.”

Baucum said it makes more financial sense for growers to simply settle the matter out-of-court, instead of paying costly lawyer and trial fees. As shown by the statistics, Monsanto also prefers to settle out-of-court, and usually sends representatives to work things out with the grower in person.

And although some say the company is trying to bankrupt its own customers by enforcing these patents, investigators and company representatives disagree.

“Our goal has never been to put anybody out of business,” Chris Reat, a Monsanto representative who often negotiates settlements with farmers, said. “The terms of the settlement have been extended through years to have time to let the grower to try to fit that settlement into his farming operation.”

Even though Monsanto’s policy of enforcing patents might seem strict, almost every other seed company marketing biotechnology-enhanced seeds enforce their patents. “Monsanto is not the only seed company that enforces its intellectual property rights,” Baucum said. “Pioneer, Agripro, Syngenta, all these companies have engaged in enforcement actions against other people who had violated their rights in seed and seed products they’re creating.”

Baucum also said people should weigh the small number of lawsuits against the “hundreds of thousands of people” to whom the company has licensed seed to over the past ten years.

Overall, both Baucum and Reat agree growers are usually more than willing to settle matters with Monsanto representatives in a polite, respectable way out-of-court. “A lot of times growers are worried that Monsanto is going to take their farm, but we will do everything possible to reach a settlement in these matters,” Reat said.

Whether the farmer settles directly with Monsanto, or the case goes to trial, the proceeds are donated to youth leadership initiatives including scholarship programs.