The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued it much-anticipated decision in Bowman vs. Monsanto. The case addresses the doctrine of patent exhaustion, which eliminates the right to control or prohibit the use of an invention after an authorized sale.
As we previously discussed on this IP Law Blog, Monsanto holds patents for Roundup Ready soybean seeds, which it sells to farmers pursuant to a license agreement that authorizes the seeds to be used for one growing season. Hugh Bowman, a soybean farmer, purchased the patented seeds from a grain elevator and used them for his late-season crops for several growing seasons.
Bowman 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.
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with Monsanto, concluding that the doctrine of patent exhaustion did not protect Bowman’s activities. The justices acknowledged that the doctrine allows purchasers to use and resell a purchased invention; however, those rights only apply to the particular article sold. “It leaves untouched the patentee’s ability to prevent a buyer from making new copies of the patented item,” the Court stated.
As the Court notes in the opinion, “By planting and harvesting Monsanto’s patented seeds, Bowman made additional copies of Monsanto’s patented invention, and his conduct thus falls outside the protections of patent exhaustion.”
The Court also appeared to be influenced by the consequences of the alternative ruling. “Were this otherwise, Monsanto’s patent would provide scant benefit. After Monsanto sold its first seed, other seed companies could produce the patented seed to compete with Monsanto, and farmers would need to buy seed only once,” the justices stated.
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