Science

Monsanto Wins Supreme Court Seed Patent Case

By Michael Mayday , May 13, 2013 07:09 PM EDT

The international agribusiness giant, Monsanto, handily won a Supreme Court case over the use of its self-replicating technology - its seeds - on Monday. The case pitted the company against 75-year-old Vernon Bowman, an Indiana farmer, over the use of the company's genetically modified "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds, which are resistant to the company's Roundup Ready herbicide formula.

Monsanto requires all farmers who use their genetically modified seeds to sign a contract. That contract limits the use of Monsanto seeds to one growing season, prohibiting farmers from saving seeds for later seasons.

Bowman had bought modified seeds from Monsanto before, but for a fall growing season, which risks lower yields, Bowman decided to buy seeds from a local grain elevator which bought and sold commodity soybean seeds with local farmers. Bowman knew the seeds likely contained Monsanto's patented product, and used them for eight growing seasons. This, Monsanto argued, violated their patent protection, and sued Bowman.

Bowman, argued against Monsanto's lawsuit, saying he used the seeds legally under a doctrine called "patent exhaustion." The doctrine gives customers the right to resell patented items without fear of reprisal if they were first purchased legally.

The Supreme Court disagreed, handing down a unanimous 9-0 decision in favor of Monsanto.

"Patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for majority opinion. "If simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention."

Such a situation, Kagan continued, could cause a patent monopoly to be rendered useless in less than 20 years, the period of time currently afforded to patent holders under the Patent Act, giving companies and individuals less incentive to innovate and create new products.

The court, however, was careful to note that it was addressing the case before it, limiting the ruling to this particular case. It does not address all patents with self-replicating products, leaving room for future cases.

As Wired's David Kravets notes, the decision could be central to how companies can control patents on technology, particularly in biotech, which can self-replicate with ease.

The Obama administration, along with a lower court, an appeals court and the Supreme Court, argued the patent control on a product in the commerce stream is virtually endless, so long as the patent is maintained.

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