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Intellectual copyrights can hamstring farmers
Grass is always greener...
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner is a University of Georgia Extension agent who lives in Bryan County.

When you buy a song or album, you get to play it as much as you want for your own pleasure, but you do not own the song.

You do not have the right to change the music or verse and sell it as your own. You don’t have the right to play the song and make money from playing it unless you pay royalties to the holders of the copyright, which often includes the songwriter. This seems only fair as producing new, original music is how the songwriter makes a living.

There are even corporations — BMI and ASCAP — that exist to ensure the songwriters get paid royalties. The songs are intellectual property. The writer can sell copyrights to music publishers. Writers still retain a portion of the song copyrights and still are due their portion of royalties.

Read up on Michael Jackson buying the rights to the early Beatles songs for a good example of how all this works, and how confusing it can be.

Intellectual property is not just in music, motion pictures and the arts. It is computer software as well. Just because you bought a computer game does not give you a right to copy it and sell it. That is commonly called "bootlegging" or "piracy," and it is a crime.

Theft of intellectual property is a crime in agriculture as well. Plant breeders have a lot invested in new varieties of plants with new desirable traits. They recoup those costs and hope to make a profit through receipt of royalties they receive from sale of the seed or plants.

An example from here in Georgia: A farmer buys peanuts to plant that have very desirable traits that will help make the farmer more profit. Lots of other peanut farmers want this variety of peanut as well. The farmer was required to sign a document as a condition of sale of the seed to him agreeing not to keep back seed from the harvest of the plants those seed produced, to plant back that saved seed on his own farm in following years or to sell the seed produced by his plants to others.

He did not do that. He planted the seed, made his crop and saved back seed from his crop to replant his farm and made a tidy business selling seed to other peanut growers. The plant breeders incurred all the expenses, and the farmer pirated their profits for himself.

The seed producer found out what was going on and sued. A federal court agreed with the seed producer and found in the seed producer’s favor to the tune of $600,000. This was easy; it was a case of breach of contract and outright theft of intellectual property.

Now another more complicated case is rumbling. Modern tractors and combines are complex machines with multiple on-board computers. Software running those computers quite possibly may be from multiple computer software vendors. The days of farmers being able to repair their own tractors are gone. Now when a half-million–dollar combine dies in the field, it first needs a diagnostician to plug into the computers to find out what is wrong and then send the right repair technician. As the farmer waits, the window for a profitable harvest keeps narrowing. To complicate the matter, the lousy economy has caused locations with the needed diagnosticians to be consolidated. The needed repairmen may now be days and hundreds of miles away.

Farmers run their equipment when they need it. Having a tractor down during harvest can cost five figures a day. Many farmers want the software to be open for vendors from competing brands, independent repair technicians and even the farmer himself to access, assess and alter.

This flies in the face of copyright and patent law and means a loss of control over product and loss of business for the equipment manufacturer. Control over patents and copyrights is one of the enumerated powers of Congress in the U.S. Constitution. However, the farmer needs to have equipment working when he needs it. He cannot have his entire year put in jeopardy due to slow equipment repair. In the farmer’s world, he needs to make enough money this year to pay off last year’s bills and loans so he can get a loan to farm next year. Dragging this matter through the courts hurts both parties.

Some of the best advice I ever received was to be leery of technical solutions to political problems and political solutions to technical problems. This is a technical problem. Somewhere, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and software engineers have to find a technical solution before this becomes a political problem. If they fail, you will read about it.

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