The Supreme Court unanimously sided with agribusiness giant Monsanto on Monday against a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer for planting seeds without paying the company a “technology fee.”
In the case Bowman v. Monsanto (PDF), justices expressed little interest in addressing the broader problems posed by Monsanto’s technology, which self-replicates and can contaminate neighboring fields. Instead, they ruled that farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman had knowingly used Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant soybeans beyond his licensing period by purchasing soybeans from neighboring farmers once his Monsanto license expired.
Knowing these seeds would likely contain Monsanto’s patented genetics, the court noted that he planted them for eight straight growing seasons and repeatedly used Monsanto’s Roundup bug killer on them. Once Monsanto sued, Bowman argued that the company’s patent did not apply due to patent exhaustion, a legal provision that lets someone who purchased something resell it if they choose.
“We think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court’s unanimous majority. “Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans’ multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.”
She added that the court’s ruling is “limited” only to Bowman’s case and should not be construed to limit patent exhaustion in any other application, which could be very important for future cases dealing with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The court is also considering a landmark case that could result in human genes being patented.
“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,” Kagan wrote. “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct.”
According to CNN, Monsanto has sued 146 farmers on various intellectual property allegations. Of the 11 that made it to court, Monsanto has won them all.
Despite the seemingly limiting ruling, the American Soybean Association praised the court’s action Monday. “Intellectual property protection sparked a sea change in investments by public and private seed breeders into improved seeds for soybeans and other crops,” the group said in prepared text. “The Supreme Court’s decision today recognized that if you take away the incentive for those entities to strive for a better seed, they won’t make those investments and farmers eventually won’t have the benefits of improved seeds.”