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Monsanto's Supreme Court Seed Fight: What Would Woody Guthrie Think?

Andrew Cohenbyline‚ Feb. 19‚ 2013

"A farmer is good. It's as good a job as a man can do."

It is a blessing upon this nation that Woody Guthrie's voice, the relentless voice of the poor and the powerless, is heard anew this winter in the form of a powerful book, a newly-discovered novel titled House of Earth. Edited and with an extensive introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp, Guthrie's book, written in 1947, searingly portrays the joy and sorrow of a poor farming couple living through the Dust Bowl during the Depression. And when I read it last week it naturally made me think immediately of the United States Supreme Court.

On Tuesday morning, the justices will hear oral argument in a fascinating case that would very much have interested Guthrie were he alive today. The case is styled Bowman v. Monsanto and, technically, it's a conflict over seed-planning and federal patent law. It's a story about technology and innovation and investment, about legal standards and appellate precedent and statutory intent, about the nature of nature and how the law ought to answer the basic question of who owns the rights to the seeds of planted seeds.