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SCOTUS rules against Indiana farmer in seed patent case

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A unanimous Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that patent exhaustion doesn’t allow a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission.

The justices handed down the ruling Monday morning in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., et al., 11-796, in which Monsanto Co. sued Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman for patent infringement. Bowman purchased Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready soybeans from an authorized dealer for his first crop of the season. Those seeds have been genetically altered to survive exposure to the herbicide glyphosate.

But in an effort to reduce planting costs, Bowman purchased soybeans intended for consumption from a grain elevator and planted them later in the season. He harvested some of the soybeans that contained the Roundup Ready trait to use again for late-season planting in the next season.

The purchase agreement of Roundup Ready soybeans permits a grower to plant those seeds in only one season, and a grower may not save them for replanting or supply them to anyone else for that purpose.

The District Court in the Southern District of Indiana ruled in favor of Monsanto, which the Federal Circuit affirmed, awarding nearly $85,000 in damages to Monsanto.

Bowman argued that exhaustion shouldn’t apply in this case because he is using seeds in the normal way farmers do. Allowing Monsanto to interfere with that use would create an impermissible exception to the exhaustion doctrine for patented seeds.

“Our holding today is limited — addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote, noting it was Bowman, and not the bean, who controlled the reproduction of Monsanto’s patented invention. “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. We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances.

“In the case at hand, Bowman planted Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article. Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct,” the court held.

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  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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