No Surprise: Monsanto Beats Farmer in Supreme Court Patent Case

supreme court_scottlengerOn Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the Bowman v. Monsanto case, which dealt with issues surrounding patent exhaustion—limiting how long patent holders can control the use and sale of an item—and the patenting of living organisms.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of Monsanto, concluding that patent exhaustion does not apply to this case and that Vernon Hugh Bowman violated Monsanto’s seed license.

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:

“Under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, the authorized sale of a patented article gives the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, a right to use or resell that article. Such a sale, however, does not allow the purchaser to make new copies of the patented invention. The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. We hold that he may not.”

The court also made clear that this is not an overarching decision, as patent cases of this nature can only be decided on a case-by-case basis:

“Our holding today is limited—addressing the situation before us, rather than everyone involving a self-replicating product. 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. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose.”

For more details, check out my February story on the implications of this case.

Monsanto had another big win in March, when an anonymous provision to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by opponents, went unnoticed as the bill was passed in Congress and signed by the president. The provision, set to expire in September, protects Monsanto and other biotech firms from litigation related to the safety of their genetically modified seeds.

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Lonnie Shekhtman

Lonnie Shekhtman is a Massachusetts-based writer covering sustainable business, food systems, social enterprises and impact investing. Stay in touch by following Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

3 responses

  1. This is a genuinely fascinating case, but I think that the supreme court still hasn’t really gotten down to the heart of it – Can a self replicating “product” be patentable or not? … That’s the fundamental issue.

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