The Supreme Court Monday ruled in favor of Monsanto in the case of an Indiana farmer that contends he did not infringe on Monsanto's patent rights when he planted soybean seeds derived from soybeans containing a patented glyphosate-resistant Monsanto gene.
The case was brought against Bowman after Monsanto discovered he purchased Roundup Ready soybeans from a local grain elevator and, from 1999 to 2007, planted, cultivated and harvested them to create a supply of soybeans containing the patented traits.
Monsanto subsequently sued Bowman for patent infringement, while Bowman countered with an argument of patent exhaustion, which gives the purchaser of a patented article, or any subsequent owner, the right to reuse or resell the article. Bowman argued that he could save and replant the seeds because they were subject to a prior authorized sale.
The Supreme Court, however, rejected the defense and upheld Monsanto's claim unanimously. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the opinion that, "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 further noted that, "Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, Bowman could resell the patented soybeans he purchased from the grain elevator; so too he could consume the beans himself or feed them to his animals … but the exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto's permission."
In a statement, Monsanto explained that the decision reflects the incentive structure the patent system provides for innovation.
The ruling "provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs, and allows America to keep its competitive edge," said David F. Snively, general counsel for Monsanto.
Similarly, American Soybean Association President Danny Murphy and National Corn Growers Association Chair Garry Niemeyer addressed in press statements the role of patents and modernization.
Murphy said the ruling would ensure that technological innovation can continue to serve agriculture, and "without the protection of intellectual property that the court reaffirmed today, the companies on whom my fellow soybean farmers and I rely would have no real incentive to make the investments necessary to develop new soybean varieties that yield more, resist disease, weeds, and pests, are drought tolerant, or have improved nutritional profiles."
Niemeyer further added that it is "essential to future research" that companies are able to profit from their innovations already on the market under patent protection.
"In upholding the integrity of this [patent] right, the court shows that the American dream of achieving success through hard work and ingenuity is still alive," Niemeyer said.
The Food Democracy Now! group, however, had harsh words for the ruling.
"Monsanto has long engaged in an effort to subvert family farmers that do not use their genetically-engineered seeds and the Court has now handed corporations even more control over what our families eat," FDN founder Dave Murphy wrote in a press statement.
The group is currently involved in a lawsuit against Monsanto alleging the company is facilitating unwanted GMO contamination in non-GMO fields.
Previously, the District Court ruled in favor of Monsanto in the Bowman case, as did the Federal Circuit Court.
The patents in the glyphosate-resistnat technology expire in 2014.
For more background on the case, visit What's At Stake In the Monsanto Dispute Over GM Seed?, a Farm Futures blog entry from attorney Gary Baise.
Also view the opinion in its entirety here.