The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a patent case which demonstrates the tension between farmers and scientists in which the farmers are trying to defend their historical centuries old use of naturally grown plants in contrast to scientists attempts to limit this naturally occurring practice.
In Bowman v. Monsanto the Supreme Court considers whether a patent holder’s rights extend over a product produced beyond the first sale. The Court’s ruling could impact not only the genetically modified seed industry, but also other industries including computer software to auto parts. On the flip side, some are worried that by reducing the protection offered under patents could stifle innovation, something which is truly Made in America.
“Why in the world would any [manufacturer] pay any money to invent a seed … when anyone could just grow more?” asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. during Tuesday’s argument.
Sowing the Seeds of Infringement
The case stems from Vernon Bowman’s purchase of genetically modified “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds from Monsanto Co. a patent owner which holds many patents on self-replicating and herbicide-resistant soybeans. Instead of selling its seeds, Monsanto licenses them to farmers to use so long as the farmers promise not to save or replant later produced seeds which are naturally obtained after the first harvest.
Rather than purchase the soybeans from Monsanto, Mr. Bowman purchased the seeds from a commodity market avoiding the contract limitation imposed by Monsanto. After Bowman planted a crop he harvested and saved some of the seeds back to the commodity market. As a result, Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement, rather than breach of the Monsanto limited license agreement.
Under traditional patent laws, a patent holders’ rights are exhausted after their initial “lawful” sale of the patented product. Because of this, Bowman argued that Monsanto’s patent claims were exhausted and could not be enforced against a later lawful purchaser who purchases lawfully made patent product. But the district court disagreed, as did the Federal Circuit, which held that Bowman could not use patented goods to create new infringing products.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari and today heard oral arguments in the case. Because of the potential downstream impact on many industries which impose limitations on patented products beyond the initial sale, the case has drawn interest from a variety of consumer groups and manufacturers from auto parts manufacturers to software companies such as Microsoft. A ruling is expected before the Court’s term concludes in June.
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