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Bowman v. Monsanto Company – Patent Case

Monsanto Company, a producer of herbicide resistant soybean seeds and technology, sued Vernon Hugh Bowman, a soybean farmer, for patent infringement. Bowman replanted second-generation seeds, which were the product of seeds purchased from a licensed Monsanto technology distributor. Monsanto argued that by planting the product of Monsanto’s herbicide resistant seeds instead of purchasing new ones, Bowman was in violation of the Technology Agreement for the seeds.

The Federal Circuit upheld a district court decision awarding Monsanto damages for violation of their patented technology, reasoning that Monsanto’s herbicide resistant technology was covered by patent regardless of whether it was the original seed or a product of the original seeds. Bowman contends that Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted once he bought the seeds and that use of progeny seeds is an expected use of the product. Monsanto responds that in the case of self-replicating technologies the patent extends to the technology, here, the trait of herbicide resistance, rather than the seed itself.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds must generally sign a contract promising not to save seeds from the resulting crop, which means they must buy new seeds every year. The seeds are valuable because they are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, itself a Monsanto product.

At Issue; May patent holders enforce their rights on the products of self-replicating technologies, such as replicating seeds, after an authorized sale or does the patent only apply to the original article?

Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that farmers could not use Monsanto’s patented genetically altered soybeans to create new seeds without paying the company a fee.

Justice Kegan wrote:

“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.”

“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.”

If simple copying were a protected use,” she wrote, “a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the item containing the invention.”

 

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