Sunday, September 06, 2009

God Doesn't Hold Patents

As a writer, I am naturally sympathetic to the concept of "intellectual property." If a magazine publishes my story for sale, or a theatre puts on one of my plays, I wish to be paid for my work. In lieu of payment, give me credit for my work and say thanks -- that's how it goes in the non-profit cultural sector. But if you're making money off my work, I'm looking for payment for my labor.

Creativity, thus, is my labor.

Are my stories "property" in any sense other than legal? Not exactly. They are meant to be shared. I know fully well that actors may modify the lines I wrote, and I accept that reality. It isn't completely "mine." However, as the product of my labor, I am entitled to earn money from it. In that sense alone, I accept the concept of "intellectual property" although I think the term is misleading.

Those of you still following this blog have endured a series of posts recently about food and farming. What is this kick about, anyway?

For one thing, it is an under-reported crisis. Mainstream news gave play to the food crisis back in 2008 for a little while -- you may remember stories that year about Asian countries cutting their exports of rice and some riots over food prices -- but little follow-up. It does not make for exciting reading, agriculture; yet its implications are deadly serious and they touch your life and mine at the supermarket and the kitchen table.

The politics of our century are going to deal increasingly with scarcity: scarcity of traditional energy resources, scarcity of new technology for renewable resources, scarcity of water, scarcity of soil. While we're all occupied with our arguments about health care, I am watching developments at the USDA with great concern; watching the growing pressure on the WTO from India, Africa, the Philippines, and other countries criticizing the prevailing development model and demanding reform; and with hope I watch the attempt in our own hemisphere at a different, rational development model that builds food sovereignty.

Among the stories I've shared with you is the successful monopolizing of seeds by a gigantic corporate-farming overlord. The way it works, to put it very simply, is to modify a seed's genetic makeup so as to make it "pest resistant" or "more abundant." Sounds like a good thing that will help farmers, right? The overlord, of course, patents the modified seed and has the right to control the sales of that seed. The seed requires other products manufactured by the overlord, and farmers are obligated to sign contracts guaranteeing their brand-loyalty to the overlord. Under the terms of the contact, farmers are not permitted to harvest or plant their own seeds.

This is a perversion of intellectual property. I suspect the purpose of the modification was not to benefit crops, but to control an essential market. Monsanto has found a way to exercise monopoly control over the seeds that are planted in our fields, to such an extent that it can set prices and put food producers out of business for the simple act of planting their own seeds on their land.

To use a phrase I came across recently, it is an example of "planned competitive scarcity" -- monopoly, in other words. There is an abundance of God-given creative product in any farmer's silo right now, and God has not seen fit to take out a patent on it. Increasingly, however, farmers are prevented from employing that abundance, and are forced to deal with an expensive supplier. This is false scarcity: the natural wealth is there, by grace, but a provisional scarcity is put into place just so Monsanto can make money.

It is theft. It robs farmers of the right to employ their own skills and innovation and to benefit from their own labor. On a larger scale, the offense is more obvious, as expanded notions of "intellectual property" block access to traditional (and natural) forms of real wealth.

And what is the moral dimension here? Personally, I don't hold to a notion of a "creator God" -- it would be closer to the mark to say God is a name for infinite creativity beyond human imagining -- but if there were a creator God, this would be a good time for some epic ass-whooping. "You presume to own the corn seed and to profit from it while farmers go bankrupt and people go hungry? Taste my lightning bolt, cheeky monkey."

Or something more noble sounding.

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