Bowman v. Monsanto SCOTUS Case: The Death Of Copyrights and Patents?


The ubiquity of information on the internet and proliferation of affordable 3D scanning and printing devices are set to cause an uproar in the field of intellectual property law.

As the means of efficient production moves toward the masses in the form of cheap 3D printing and scanning technologies, and away from large scale manufacturers, serious questions are being raised about who can produce what and under what circumstances.

We saw copyright battles of the early days of internet video streaming, battles that were largely won by corporate interests. We are witnessing another salvo in the intellectual property war in the Bowman v. Monsanto Supreme Court Case. In a nutshell, the case is about who gets to control subsequent generations of a self-reproducing product.

Monsanto claims that they have the right to control the use (i.e. make farmers buy anew every year) of their patented seeds while Bowman and other farmers claim that seed garnered from plants grown from purchased seed – second generation seed – is no longer protected by patents. Though this case represents a biological rather than a technological product, the outcome of the case will have far reaching ramifications for all aspects of intellectual property law. The case will decide how far a corporation’s intellectual property rights extend when the products they produce are released from their control.

In fact, self-replication (biological products) and user replication (technological products) are substantially similar issues. In both cases the entity that creates the “first generation” product effectively loses control of that product in the second generation. Once a product hits the mass market customers can and often do use the product as they please, whether that use is legal or not. The corporation’s only recourse in the case of illegal use is a suit.

There are big questions to be answered. Given how rapidly technology is evolving, allowing individuals to design, copy, and produce what they want, what is the future of information ownership? Will patents and trademarks on products become a thing of the past? How will fair use doctrine evolve? And as these laws evolve how will corporations, whose profits are threatened by uncontrolled production, evolve in turn?

In a way, as pointed out toward the end of this NPR article, digital reproduction is an opportunity for companies to better connect with their customers. This is especially true for media companies whose customers can more accurately be described as fans, and who bring with them with all of the enthusiasm that the term conjures.

In the end, corporations are going to have to figure out new profit models for the products of their research and development. They are also going to have to figure out new paradigms for raising the capital to conduct that research.

Where corporations and the law fall out on this issue remains to be seen but one thing is certain. For better or worse, 3D printing is here to stay. Smart corporations will embrace the change and figure out how to profit from it rather than wasting resources fighting it.