COMMENTARY: SCOTUS takes case with implications for the future of ag technology

For generations, America's fields have yielded a variety of crops which can be attributed to more than just the tireless work-ethic of the American farmer. In the last decade or so, farmers have begun to leverage high-tech tools offering increase...


For generations, America’s fields have yielded a variety of crops which can be attributed to more than just the tireless work-ethic of the American farmer. In the last decade or so, farmers have begun to leverage high-tech tools offering increased output, efficiency and environmental protection, while supplying a global marketplace of consumers teaming with discerning tastes and preferences for sourcing.  A recent  Wall Street Journal  article notes, the longstanding goal of increasing productivity in agricultural operations has catalyzed a wave of developments implemented and by technologically-minded farmers. As articulated in the piece, self-taught farmers are increasingly developing and marketing their own robotic equipment, satellite-navigation networks and a host of agriculture technology tools which are enhancing output and maximizing finite resources like land, water, and financial capital. These advancements also allow farmers to grow with the precision required for their products to meet certifications like “organic.”


These innovations have fostered a number of “agri-tech” startups (Silicon Barns, if you will) aimed at harnessing the power of mobile communication and internet technologies for farmers. Dirt Tech, for example, is a Minnesota-based company developing a range of mobile applications that help chart soil fertility in fields. Kinze Manufacturing Inc., a farm-equipment maker in Iowa, is developing driverless tractors. Jim Poyzer, a farmer in Iowa, employs a microprocessor to monitor and adjust how many seeds his planter distributes per acre.


These startups are just a few examples of the ways in which mobile and internet technologies are revolutionizing the farming industry. And technological developments aren’t limited to farming itself – the entire paradigm of agricultural is shifting. Farmers are now able to seamlessly track inventory data in real-time as well as communicate with existing customers and identify prospective new buyers. Today, farmers can monitor and control their operations from the field, at home, or anywhere they bring a smartphone or tablet. In addition, with rising consumer interest in organically, sustainably and locally sourced products, enhanced control and use of reliable data, as much or more than traditional production variables like weather, can be the difference between a successful season or a loss on today's modern farm.



Unfortunately, these advances are not entirely immune from threats. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its review of a ruling in the long-running design patent infringement case between Apple and smartphone rival Samsung. The results of their review will be critical far beyond the two competing manufacturers. This review provides an opportunity to update an obsolete judicial interpretation of how damages are awarded for design patents in infringement lawsuits for modern multi-component devices, like the smartphones at the heart of the case.


The previous ruling, which is up for review, elevates design patents for ornamental features, such as the shape of one small feature, over utility patents and a product’s functionalities. Under the current precedent, damages for infringement can be equal to the total profits earned from the alleged infringing product. The current ruling is a complete departure from the norm in assessing damages. Prior to the Apple award, total profit damages were reserved for infringement which lead to copying in an attempt to fool consumers into buying the wrong product.  The Apple award will create incentives for offensive troll-like litigation using design patent infringement charges as abusers seek “total profit” awards, even if the infringement charged is for a minor design feature, like Apples patent for a device with “rounded corners.”


The effects of letting this ruling stand and awarding total profit to Apple would not be limited to these two companies. If the Supreme Court does not reverse the lower court’s ruling, it will have consequences for all industries, not just technology.  Any individual or company who brings a product to the market is at risk of total profit liability. The most immediate threat will be to mobile technology and application developers, who are at risk for offering new products, like those now being actively employed by America’s innovative and hardworking farmers.


The modern agricultural industry relies heavily on mobile connectivity because large portions our rural landscape lacks access to broadband. Today, fewer than 20% of all Americans can’t get broadband, but that percentage is nearly three times higher – a whopping 53% - in rural America! Mobile connectivity through the availability of mobile technologies, like those being developed and used by farmers, offer a clear path for rural Americans to participate in a dynamic technology economy of today and tomorrow.



If the Supreme Court doesn’t reverse the current ruling, patent trolls seeking total profit awards will effectively be setting fire to our emerging Silicon Barns. Companies like Dirt Tech and Kinze Manufacturing Inc. are leapfrogging the innovations of their larger counterparts in the industry often times by offering more affordable alternatives to the big industry names. Agri-tech innovators, a developing pillar of our agriculture economy, are at risk to be litigated out of existence unless the U. S. Supreme Court takes action.


Many of our rural communities have been farming for generations and even centuries. Technological innovation presents a path for American agricultural growth which fuels the economy, protects the environment and meets the demands of the most diverse group of consumers in the history of the planet. We must protect both their mobile connectivity and the ability to innovate. The Supreme Court was right to accept this important case, and it should reverse the previous ruling to prevent this legal anomaly of this award from harming the American farm.


Editor's note: Watson is a member of the board of directors of The National Grange, the nation's oldest general farm and rural public interest organization with more than 2,000 affiliated local, county and state Grange chapters across the U.S.

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