A unanimous Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that patent exhaustion doesn’t allow a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. The justices handed down the ruling Monday morning in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., et al., 11-796, in which Monsanto Co. sued Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman for patent infringement. Bowman purchased Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybeans from an authorized dealer for his first crop of the season. Those seeds had been genetically altered to survive exposure to the herbicide glyphosate.
The purchase agreement of Roundup Ready soybeans permits a grower to plant those seeds in only one season, and a grower may not save them for replanting or supply them to anyone else for that purpose. The District Court in the Southern District of Indiana ruled in favor of Monsanto, which the Federal Circuit affirmed, awarding nearly $85,000 in damages to Monsanto. Bowman argued that exhaustion shouldn’t apply in this case because he is using seeds in the normal way farmers do. Allowing Monsanto to interfere with that use would create an impermissible exception to the exhaustion doctrine for patented seeds.
Groups opposed to the use of biotechnology rallied behind Bowman who they painted as a victim of a large corporate greed. The court ruling, however, preserves the ability of seed companies and biotechnology firms to control how farmers use their products, but does not set a president for self replicating technology. “Our holding today is limited — addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote, noting it was Bowman, and not the bean, who controlled the reproduction of Monsanto’s patented invention. “In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose. We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances.”