Jon Stewart is not quite “Roundup Ready” when it comes to Intellectual Property Law

I usually appreciate how Jon Stewart and the staff at The Daily Show carefully “cultivate” and “harvest” their subjects.

There is something that appeals to my sense of integrity when bad behavior is “weeded” out, and his commentary is subversively instructional, as well as entertaining.

He also uses “air quotes” a lot to “say things without really saying them”.

On the other hand, the instructional “benefits” are severely undermined when facts are “modified” to make a point.

This happens all of the time in public comment sections on websites, or in news stories circulated via email.  It is a challenge to promote an opinion without making editorial changes.  A recent study indicated how opinion may even subconsciously influence our ability to interpret empirical data, allowing us to justify the conclusion that we had already made.

Each time information is passed from one person to another, there is a tendency to tweak it a little, maybe without recognizing how significant those changes are.

Of course the opinions expressed here are completely impartial.

Which leads to a problem with a recent segment on The Daily Show.  Intellectual property law is not something that engages the general public, so even the slightest omission or misrepresentation can encourage opinions that are divorced from the original facts.

Whatever the public perception of a large agriculture corporation, with a reputation for being aggressively litigious – and therefore will remain nameless although they make a “product” that is cleverly referenced in this article’s title – they have valid patents for “genetically modified seeds” that they developed.

Those patents claim specific features, relevant to another “product” made by the same corporation, and there are licensing terms for the use of those features.

The segment on The Daily Show unfortunately alters or omits some information that is important with respect to understanding why this corporation prevailed in a notable pair of lawsuits against farmers who used seeds that had these features, without proper licensing.

One case claims that a Canadian farmer was sued when seeds blew from a truck onto his property.  This is cited as proving that current law benefits large corporations, and allows farmers to be held liable for accidental infringement.  An important fact, which was disregarded in the segment, was that the farmer noticed the properties of the plants that grew, then intentionally harvested, saved, and replanted the seeds to take advantage of the benefits.  So the nuance was that the farmer was not held liable for the seeds that blew onto his property, but that did not give him the right to subsequently exercise the protected features without licensing.

A second case claims an Indiana farmer was sued when he purchased seeds, then harvested, saved and replanted the results.  A key element of this case, however, was that the farmer intentionally tried to get around the licensing requirement by purchasing seeds from a feed silo.  Again, the nuance was that the farmer had the right to the seeds, but not the right to exercise the protected features without licensing.

The segment also included the quote that the patent effectively allows the corporation to “collect royalties on nature”.

Now this is a gross misrepresentation of patent law, refuted by the recent Myriad and Prometheus decisions, but that would not necessarily prevent the quote from being repeated.  Clever quotes spread faster than weeds, especially in the fertile ground of the internet, where there is no electronic equivalent of “herbicide”.

There are instances where people do not like a result, but it is good application of the law, just as there are instances where people like a result, but it is bad application of the law.

These cases were seen as David losing to Goliath.  We need to remember that in another case where the positions were reversed, the same law would allow the David to prevail.  A small company that could not depend on consistent enforcement of their patents would have no equity to attract investment.  By altering the facts, we weaken the ability to have a constructive debate about the nature of the law, and inaccurate facts are even harder to kill than genetically modified crops.

We should hold the Most Trusted Newsman in America to a higher standard, in my completely impartial opinion.

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