Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
In a victory for patent holders, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision on Monday stating farmers could not use agricultural biotech company Monsanto’s patented and genetically modified soybeans to generate new seeds without sending the company a fee.
Copyright law experts are saying the ruling could have ramifications for other aspects of modern agriculture as well as other patented genetic material and even the software industry.
In writing about the decision for the court, Justice Elena Kagan emphasized the narrow scope of their unanimous ruling.
“Our holding today is limited – addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product,” she wrote. “We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex and diverse.
“In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control,” she added. “Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose.”
When farmers buy the patented seeds, they are contractually restricted from keeping seeds generated by the resulting plants that are grown.
In search of a loophole – Vernon Hugh Bowman, the farmer in the case, bought seeds from a grain elevator, expecting to find Monsanto’s patented seeds sprinkled in among the animal feed.
Planting most seeds and regularly spraying them with Roundup would typically kill the resulting plants that spout from the ground. However, since Monsanto has genetically engineered the seeds to be resistant to its popular weed killer, Roundup, many of plants generated by Bowman’s grain elevator seed survived into full grown plants.
After finding out what the farmer had done, Monsanto sued and a federal judge in Indiana told Bowman to pay the company $84,000 for patent infringement. The decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
In his defense before the Supreme Court, Bowman attempted to invoke a doctrine called patent exhaustion, which allows people to use products they obtained legally in any manner they choose. However, Kagan said the doctrine did not apply in this case.
“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, “that is precisely what Bowman did.”
According to legal briefs of the case, Bowman explained the beans naturally “self-replicate or ‘sprout’ unless stored in a controlled manner,” meaning that the farmer could not be held responsible for what a plant does naturally.
Kagan and the other justices rejected the so-called “blame-the-bean defense.”
“Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans’ multiplication,” Kagan wrote. “Put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.”
“It was Bowman, and not the bean,” she added, “who controlled the reproduction (unto the eighth generation) of Monsanto’s patented invention.”
The decision was a major victory for Monsanto, a company that has been derided by farmers and environmentalists alike. The business rose to notoriety as a subject of the 2008 documentary Food Inc., which detailed perceived abuses of corporate agribusiness in the United States.
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