U.S. Supreme Court decides for Monsanto and its patent on weed-killer resistant soybean seeds

In a unanimous ruling on May 13, 2013, in BOWMAN v. MONSANTO CO. ET AL., the Supreme Court supported the patent protection afforded Monsanto’s weed-killer-resistant soybeans by saying the principle of patent exhaustion doesn't permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.

Farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman bought Monsanto’s expensive, patented ‘‘Roundup Ready’’ seeds for his main crop of soybeans. For his second crop (and for eight more years) he bought much cheaper seeds from a grain elevator that held soybeans it typically sells for feed and other uses, correctly reasoning that the less expensive soybeans would also show weed-killer resistance, as they were probably sourced from herbicide-resistant seeds (Monsanto’s patented seeds have a 90% market share). Bowman bought soybeans from the grain elevator and planted them and their progeny over an eight-year period. In 2007, Monsanto sued for patent infringement and won an $84,456 judgment.

Bowman’s lawyers argued that Monsanto’s patent rights stopped with the sale of the first crop of beans (first sale), but Monsanto argued their limited license clearly defines allowable use of the seeds it sells, and the first sale doctrine never came into play anyway, as the new seeds (progeny of the originals) had never been sold.

Justice Elena Kagan agreed. ‘‘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,’’ she said. ‘‘Patent exhaustion provides no haven for such conduct.’’

Justice Kagan also dismissed the possibility that the results of the case could be used as guidance in other sensitive situations concerning self-replicating technologies, stating this decision only ‘‘addresses the situation before us.’’