USoutfit in legal battle over field map systems

23 April 1999

USoutfit in legal battle over field map systems

UK farmers who use field maps and GPS signals for variable rate fertiliser spreading could face higher costs if legal action by an American machinery company succeeds.

Ag-Chem, which builds self-propelled spraying and spreading equipment, claims to have a patent on variable rate fertiliser application using a field map. This could cover GPS or any other positioning system, and the Americans have issued writs for alleged patent infringement against three UK companies supplying GPS linked spreading equipment or services.

If Ag-Chem scores a legal victory in these cases it could be difficult for other UK suppliers or users of map based variable rate fertiliser systems to avoid infringing the patent. This could enable the Americans to claim some form of royalty on new equipment or an acreage levy from users.

The Agricultural Engineers Association is so concerned about Ag-Chems action that they have informed all its members about the writs.

"We wanted to make sure all of our members with an interest in this equipment are aware of the situation," says Jake Vowles, AEA director general. "If Ag-Chem can prove its case for fertiliser spreading, the company might be able to extend it to other agricultural chemicals and cover variable rate spray application as well.

"There is a lot of money at stake. If it was able to make even a small charge an acre, the total could be enormous, especially if the company is able to prove its patents in other European countries. The AEA is not directly involved in the dispute, and our role is to ensure our members are aware of the issues."

One of the writs has gone to Kuhn Farm Machinery, UK subsidiary of the French machinery manufacturer which was one of the pioneers of variable rate fertiliser spreading. Catherine Hollins, a director of the Shropshire based company, confirmed that the writ had been received, but the date for the hearing had not been fixed, she says.

Soyl, which supplies precision farming advice and services including variable rate fertiliser spreading, together with two of its associated companies, is also believed to be on the AG-Chem hit list.

But Jake Vowles thinks Ag-Chems legal action will fail. Much of the development work with GPS linked machinery began in Europe before American companies were involved, he says, and he believes it will be possible to prove that Ag-Chem was not the first company to develop a map based variable rate application system.

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