WASHINGTON — Farmers must pay Monsanto each time they plant the company's genetically modified soybeans, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, rejecting an Indiana farmer's argument that his unorthodox techniques did not violate the company's patent.
Farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman asserted that because the company's herbicide-resistent Roundup Ready soybeans replicate themselves, he was not violating the company's patent by planting progeny seeds he bought elsewhere. But the justices unanimously rejected that claim, with Justice Elena Kagan writing there is no such "seeds-are-special" exception to the law.
"Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium," Kagan wrote for the court, rejecting what she called Bowman's "blame-the-bean defense."
"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," Kagan wrote.
While the case was about soybeans, the broader issue of patent protection is important to makers of vaccines, cell lines, software and other products that might be considered self-replicating.
Corporations worried that their investments would be threatened if patents were honored only on the first sale of self-replicating products, a legal doctrine called patent exhaustion. It means companies have no control over their products once they have been sold.
But Kagan warned that the Monsanto decision was a limited one and did not address every issue involving a self-replicating product.
"We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse," Kagan wrote. "In another case, the article's self-replication might occur outside the purchaser's control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose."