The U.S. Supreme Court ruled an Indiana farmer violated Monsanto’s patent when he planted soybeans containing Monsanto’s patented Round-Up ready genetics without paying Monsanto for the seed. The Court emphasized the ruling was limited to seeds, but the decision may affect self-replicating technology outside the ag world.
Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, purchased Round-Up Ready soybeans from Monsanto for his first crop of the season. However, starting in 1999, Bowman decided to purchase soybeans from the local elevator to plant his late-season second crop. Considering all of Bowman’s neighbors were using Round-Up Ready seed, Bowman knew the soybeans he purchased from the elevator would also contain the Round-Up Ready gene. Bowman would then save back seed from the late-season crop which resisted the Round-Up herbicide and planted those seeds the following year. Bowman produced eight crops of Round-Up Ready soybeans from the soybeans he originally purchased from the local elevator.
Bowman thought he found his way around Monsanto’s patent rights through a loophole known as “patent exhaustion”. Essentially, patent exhaustion prevents a patent holder from controlling how a patented product is used after purchase. In this case, Monsanto could not control whether Bowman sold the seed, fed them to his animals, or consumed them himself. Bowman figured “patent exhaustion” extended to alow him to use the seed anyway he saw fit, including using the seed to grow next year’s crop.
The Court disagreed and explained “patent exhaustion” does not allow a purchaser to replicate the product. The Court further explained that purchasing the seed from the local elevator, instead of Monsanto, did not create an extra layer of “patent exhaustion” protection. In sum, no matter how Bowman obtained the seeds, he was not allowed to use the seed to create his own Round-Up Ready soybeans without paying Monsanto.
Monsanto and other large agribusiness companies feel the ruling protects the investment in research and development incurred in creating future biotechnology. However, the Court has officially stepped into the commercial world of genetic technology, which may go beyond the food we eat.