The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the closely-watched patent case, Bowman vs. Monsanto addressed the doctrine of patent exhaustion, which eliminates the right to control or prohibit the use of an invention after an authorized sale.
Bowman, the soybean farmer who purchased Roundup-resistant soybean seeds patented by Monsanto from a grain elevator, argues that once Monsanto sells a particular seed, its patent protection expires. Meanwhile, Monsanto contends that Bowman’s use of its patented seeds to create new seeds constitutes patent infringement. The case is novel because the seeds by their very nature are intended to self-replicate.
During oral arguments, the justices appeared concerned about the implications of siding with Bowman. As Justice John Roberts questioned, “Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?”
The justices also appeared to agree with Monsanto that any replanting of the patented seeds constitutes infringement. “You can use the seed, you can plant it, but what you can’t do is use its progeny unless you are licensed to, because its progeny is a new item,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Although the Court’s ruling was narrow in scope and made the impact of the case very small (specifically the Court avoided setting a broad legal precedent), the implications of the decision will likely be felt outside of the agriculture industry. For instance, the Court’s decision on the doctrine of patent exhaustion may also impact the software and biotechnology industries, which also rely on self-replicating inventions.
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