U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Monsanto in Soybean Patent Case

The Soybean Patent Controversy In the case of Bowman v. Monsanto Company, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday May 13 that Vernon Hugh Bowman, an Indiana farmer, had violated patent law after buying seeds from a grain elevator filled with a mix of seeds, planting them out, spraying them with glyphosate, and hoping some of the seeds contained Monsanto’s patented genes (so the soybeans would survive). Many of the plants survived. Monsanto sued. And an Indiana judge ordered Bowman to pay more than $84,000 to Monsanto, an order that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Bowman as well. Bowman thought he had found a loophole in Monsanto’s patent. Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds must sign a contract when they buy seeds from Monsanto. But of course, Bowman never signed a contract, because he bought seeds, legally, from the elevator (where seeds are usually sold for animal feed, food processing or industrial uses). The court's ruling closed this seeming loophole.

Clarifying the Controversy

According to Kevin Collins, JD, patent law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, “the legal controversy in Bowman arises from the convergence of the unusual technological capacity of patented soybeans to self-replicate when planted and the patent doctrine of exhaustion.” What does this mean?

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court, said the exhaustion doctrine did not apply to the way Bowman used the seeds. That is, the exhaustion doctrine has a limit.

From the New York Times:

“Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, Bowman could resell the patented soybeans he purchased from the grain elevator; so too he could consume the beans himself or feed them to his animals,” she wrote. “But the exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto’s permission,” she added, and went on to say that “that is precisely what Bowman did.”

Justice Kagan said that allowing Mr. Bowman’s tactic would destroy the value of Monsanto’s patent. “The exhaustion doctrine is limited to the ‘particular item’ sold,” she wrote, “to avoid just such a mismatch between invention and reward.”

You can learn more about this case from the New York Times article quoted here and from the technical explanation provided by Kevin Collins. This case was originally tried  backin February. See this article for reporting on specific court room arguments.

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