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Farming Data July 19, 2007

Posted by ficial in IP issues.
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I’m in the midst of reading Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and just this morning over tea was reading about the New Leaf potato, corporate farming, mono-culture, and the farming practice of saving seeds to plant the following year. The potato is a chimera that has a Bt gene in it to create a toxin to repel and kill insects. For a variety of reasons I’m glad that project has been shut down. But, this post isn’t really about potatoes.

In one of the paragraphs where Pollan talks about the culture of mono-culture and the practice and business of farming he mentions the practice of brownbagging seed. Brownbagging is saving seed from a harvest to plant the next season. From the farmer’s standpoint it makes perfect sense, both economically (not spending money on seed is good) and ecologically (developing locally adapted varieties). From a corporate standpoint it’s a disaster. Imagine a company that sells a thing, only once you’ve sold it the person who bought it can easily make as many copies as they want for free…. hmmm…. sounds familiar… Seed companies and data companies (software, music, etc.) are in much the same boat. Once they’ve sold their product the purchaser can make and distribute (practically, if not legally) free copies of that product.

The development of hybrid crops with don’t ‘come true’ from seed make agribusiness corporation happy – if farmers want the super-sweet, super early sweet corn they have to buy the seeds fresh from the company every year, because the previous seasons seeds won’t produce plants like their progenitors. A more recent GMO innovation was the termination gene, where the modified plant won’t produce fertile seed at all, thus making sure that a farmer that want anything at all to grow, let alone that special variety, must buy the seed fresh each year. Agribusinesses have also had a number of court rulings in their favor in recent years, which make it illegal for proprietary varieties to be propagated (by seed or cutting) with out permission from the varieties’ owners. In many ways the seed industry is taking pages out of the data industry’s playbook. The various work to make sure saved seeds aren’t useful is akin to the copy-protection schemes the software industry has developed, and the anti-piracy and IP laws of the data world are very similar to the ones in the agricultural world (in effect, if not wording).

However, the most interesting point to my mind is that for centuries prior to the current technologies there were still companies that made money selling seeds. They certainly weren’t as dominant as the modern corporations (e.g. Monsanto), but they pulled in enough to make a reasonable living. How did they make money selling something that people could get for free? Here I can only speculate, as I have to admit I don’t have the time or interest to do in depth research. First, I imagine they spent a lot of time finding, developing, and marketing new varieties. Second, they weren’t selling seed per se, but the service of dealing with the hassle of saving seed – a farmer has a limited amount of time and energy to run a farm, and time and resources spent on seed saving can’t be used elsewhere. Saving seeds is pretty easy, so the latter point can’t account for too much of the price of a seed, but it’s certainly a factor. Third, they sold to new farmers who didn’t yet have a seed store of their own. Of the three I imagine the first was the most important. Why did farmers buy the seed? Because they didn’t have that new variety, because they didn’t want to deal with seed saving on their own, or because they didn’t have any seed (because their own rotted or was eaten by rats, or because they’re starting a new crop, or farm, or whatever). Despite the imperfect analogy, this suggests to me that even in the absence of copy protection and anti-piracy laws, software companies, music companies, and any other companies in the business of selling particular arrangements of 1’s and 0’s could still make money. Enough to be world dominating hegemonies? Probably not. But enough to keep the owners and employees comfortable? Probably so.

This isn’t exactly a new revelation. Companies involved in open source have been using this model for a while. The software (seed, data, whatever) is essentially free, but the service of improving and delivering it, and the comfort of reliable support, lets these companies make money anyway.  The reason I wrote this up was not because the idea is so new, but because I was struck by the parallels between data-oriented and agricultural businesses. What is a seed if not a biological program for creating a plant, and with it more seeds? Dealing with the issues of a freely reproducible product is an older business problem than is usually thought, and by no means insurmountable. In the world of data, copying the product is even easier than with seeds, but in the business practices of yore there may a commercially viable approach that doesn’t rely on clunky copy protection and heavy-handed, difficult-to-enforce, and unpopular laws.

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