The US Supreme Court has issued a unanimous ruling today that a soybean farmer violated patents when he planted genetically modified soybeans without first paying the intellectual-property holder.
The case pitted Hugh Bowman, a septuagenarian soybean grower from Indiana, against Monsanto, the agricultural technology giant based in St Louis, Missouri. Bowman was a loyal customer of Monsanto’s genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soybeans, until he decided one year to buy seeds from a grain elevator. The elevator was known to contain seeds from Monsanto’s weed-killer-resistant plants, and Bowman selected for those soybeans by spraying his fields with herbicide. He then saved seeds from surviving soybeans to plant the next season. After eight seasons of this, Monsanto sued for violation of its patent rights: the company requires customers to buy seeds each season.
Bowman argued that Monsanto’s patents had been ‘exhausted’ after the initial sale of its seed to farmers, leaving the company no hold over the seed he purchased from the grain elevator. Monsanto, in turn, argued that each year Bowman saved seed and replanted it, he had replicated the company’s patented technology. All nine Supreme Court justices agreed with the company: “Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the court. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct.”
The decision comes as a relief to the biotechnology industry, which saw the case as a potential threat not only to agricultural biotechnology, but also to any ‘self-replicating’ technology such as genetically modified bacteria or viruses. Still, that doesn’t mean such technologies will always be as well protected as Monsanto’s soybeans, cautioned Kagan. “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.”