It's vital that the Supreme Court defend agricultural innovation

It's vital that the Supreme Court defend agricultural innovation

Tractor manufacturer John Deere has agreed to pay a hefty $300 million to acquire Blue River Technology, a California-based technology startup at the forefront of agricultural innovation. The latter describes itself as “using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.” Clearly, that work could well revolutionize many aspects of the agricultural industry, providing farmers with the real-time, data-driven insights needed for more efficient, sustainable, and ultimately more profitable operations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. solicitor general submitted a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a patent litigation case that could have far-reaching consequences for the type of agricultural innovations exemplified by Blue River Technology, not to mention the technology industry at large. The court called for the views of the solicitor general (CVSG) prior to considering a full review of a patent dispute between smartphone manufacturing giants Samsung and Apple.

Earlier this year, Samsung asked the Supreme Court to overturn an unusual decision by the federal circuit that drastically weakened “obviousness,” a standard in patent law by which inventions are compared to previous patents in order to determine whether or not a competitive development is sufficiently innovative and thus deserving of a patent. Unfortunately, the U.S. government did not recommend that the high court accept Samsung’s petition. Nonetheless, this is a case that deserves to be heard by the Supreme Court because a lowered standard presents a range of issues for rural entrepreneurs, small businesses, and the agricultural industry in general.

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Technological innovation is at the core of increasing efficiencies in farming, and a strong patent system is critical to protecting the inventions of agricultural entrepreneurs. From “precision agriculture” advances like the offerings of Blue River Technology to herding livestock with drones, technologies are revolutionizing the manner in which farmers are putting food on the table and preserving natural resources. In the age of “agri-tech,” farmers are benefiting tremendously — and becoming increasingly reliant on — these advances.

 

Over the course of our 150-year history, the National Grange has paid close attention to technological developments as well as the broader patent system in place to assure that they benefit farmers and consumers. The Apple vs. Samsung case matters to the National Grange because we believe that strong patent quality is important to business owners in rural, minority, and other underserved communities. The federal circuit’s decision weakens patent quality and creates great uncertainty by lowering the obviousness standard in patent disputes.

A weakened obviousness standard — the key issue at stake in the case — opens the door for additional patent trolls, non-practicing and non-innovating entities, as well as other opportunistic patent litigators to assert previously ineligible patents against actual innovators. In this manner, the federal circuit’s ruling will incentivize spurious litigation cases and simultaneously make it more difficult to invalidate low-quality patents, thereby undermining patent owners’ confidence in the system.

This uncertainty poses particular risks for smaller, rural-based companies. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farms — and particularly smaller operations — operate on thin profit margins. These operations are financially ill-equipped to face unforeseen expenses, including just one frivolous lawsuit from a patent troll (or shark as they were called in the 1800s). The costly legal fees involved in defending against frivolous patent suits would create additional hurdles for small family farms, preventing them from investing in any number of more productive farming practices.

Further, patents serve as a key financial tool for small businesses, including those in rural locales. Patents benchmark an entrepreneur’s viability to potential investors. Patents encourage potential employees with critical, high tech skills to work for small, startup technology companies. If left uncorrected by the Supreme Court, the uncertainty created by the federal circuit’s decision will lead to the devaluation of all patents — including legitimate ones held by small businesses. This will lead to yet more difficulties for these firms in accessing the capital needed to scale up, bring products to market and increase the number of new, high paying U.S. technology jobs.

In order to ensure the viability of small businesses in rural locales as well as the agricultural innovations they are developing, the Supreme Court should review the case and reverse the federal circuit’s ruling. The stakes are high for farmers and small businesses across rural America.

Leroy 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.