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SCOTUS decision on seed use may affect farming practices

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The lawsuit rising from Knox County and landing before the U.S. Supreme Court echoes the Biblical story of David versus Goliath with a 74-year-old soybean farmer pitted against a multinational corporation. Adding to the drama are the attorneys who say not only could this ruling have profound implications, but that this is the wrong case for the court to use to decide the key issues at stake.

Arguments have not been scheduled in Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company and Monsanto Technology LLC, 11-769, but the case is being closely watched by the legal community. At issue is whether the doctrine of patent exhaustion applies to patented seeds after the authorized sale and should an exemption to the doctrine be made for self-replicating technologies.

Soybean-field-1-15col.jpgIndiana is among the top five soybean producing states in the U.S. A total of 238 million bushels were harvested in 2011. The crop is primarily used to make animal feed and vegetable oil.(Photo submitted)

Vernon Bowman purchased Roundup Ready soybean seeds from a licensed seller and planted them for his first crop of the season. For a second crop planted later in the season, Bowman used seeds he bought from the grain elevator along with some he had saved from the second crop the prior year.

Monsanto claims the second crop violates the licensing agreement Bowman signed when he purchased seeds for the first crop, prohibiting him from saving the seeds. Also, his actions violated two of its patents because the saved seeds contained the same genetically engineered trait as the first-generation seeds.

Mark Janis, director of the Center for Intellectual Property Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, explained the Bowman case by using a copyrighted book as an example.

Buying then reselling a book does not violate its copyright but making five copies and selling those does, he said. In the Bowman case, the patent owner, Monsanto, allowed for the authorized sale of the seeds, limiting the farmers to use them in planting one crop and selling any progeny to the grain elevator. The Knox County farmer saved the seeds, and that raises the question if he infringed on the patent.

“Is saving seeds like copying a book?” Janis asked. “Is that making a new patented item? I think it is. I think it is inappropriate to say the rights have been exhausted.”

Paige Tomaselli, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety, disagreed. She countered saving seeds is a traditional farming practice. Also, the seeds Bowman saved were legally purchased at a grain elevator and not labeled as patent protected.

Certiorari granted

Soybeans are one of the backbones of Indiana’s agricultural output with 238 million bushels harvested in 2011, and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds are extremely popular. The seeds have been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate-based herbicide, enabling farmers to spray for weeds and not worry about harming the beans.

Even so, some farmers hold a negative view of the company because of its aggressive tactics in enforcing its patents. In a 2010 report, the Center for Food Safety estimated that as of Jan. 13, 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of the licensing agreements and patents.

Monsanto sued Bowman in October 2007, alleging the farmer infringed on two of its patents. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted a summary judgment in favor of Monsanto and awarded the company $84,456.20.

Bowman appealed, and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling. On Oct. 5, the Supreme Court granted Bowman’s petition to review the ruling.

In a statement, Monsanto pointed out the Federal Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling and, after examining the case, the solicitor general concluded that a certiorari review was not warranted.

“While the Supreme Court has nonetheless elected to review the case, we remain confident in our legal position, and will ask the Supreme Court to affirm the Federal Circuit’s decision,” Monsanto stated. “The doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies, in this case seeds, is of significance to the entire agricultural biotechnology industry.”

Bowman’s attorneys did not return a phone call seeking comment.

sanders Sanders

Todd Janzen, partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, echoed the question voiced by many in the legal community as to why the high court agreed to hear this case.

“I’m somewhat surprised,” he said. “They don’t typically undertake a lot of agriculture-focused cases. This is going to be fun to watch.”

In his petition for writ of certiorari, Bowman argued under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc. 553 U.S. 617 (2008), that the patents in his cases were exhausted when the seeds were sold to the grain elevator.

Janis theorized that the high court watched what the Federal Circuit has been doing in the wake of the Quanta decision and took the case to make sure the lower court is following the Supreme Court’s decisions.

“I fear that in its zeal to uphold the ruling that it made in Quanta, the court may feel it needed to grant the cert in a patent exhaustion case like this one,” he said.

Both Janis and Jay Sanders, partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, said the decision to add a seed saving exemption to the patent statute is one Congress should make, not the courts. That exemption is already written into the Plant Variety Protection Act, and including it in the patent law could upset the balance between the two provisions.

Tomaselli took a pragmatic view.

“The truth of the matter is this case is going forward,” she said, “and it does present a unique issue in regards to seeds and patent law.”

Implications

If Bowman prevails in the U.S. Supreme Court, that could have a major impact on the doctrine of patent exhaustion.

In fact, Sanders said he could not image Bowman winning. Such a ruling could remove the incentive for companies to make the investment required to develop new products.

A Bowman victory would, in effect, mean a farmer could buy one seed and then use it forever without infringing on the patent, Sanders said.

Conversely, Tomaselli sees a significant benefit for farmers if the justices find for Bowman. “Farmers could regain their traditional rights to save seeds” which would help temper increases in seed prices.

If farmers are prohibited from saving seeds, the seed industry would be free to charge enormous prices for their products, she said.

A finding for Monsanto, Tomaselli continued, would “seem to perpetuate a lot of problems with patenting genetically engineered seeds.” In addition, she said, it would perpetuate the atmosphere of investigations and harassment of farmers that Monsanto engages in to protect its patent rights.

Limiting the ruling to the facts of the case would bring a Monsanto victory, Sanders said. As to the broader implications, such a ruling would affirm that genes are patentable subject matter and every generation of a crop is protected by that patent if the seeds have the patented gene in it.

Janzen pointed out predicting what the Supreme Court will do is difficult and, in this matter, it could remand the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. However, if Monsanto prevails, Janzen offered a view that echoed Sanders but acknowledged Tomaselli’s concerns about the company’s aggressive tactics.

“If the court finds for Monsanto,” he said, “then I think that would show they have a very strong patented technology that farmers should be weary of trying to infringe upon.”•
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  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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