When the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Monsanto recently, it upheld the company’s right to prohibit the replanting of patented seed – handing the biotech giant a major victory. The court ruled that the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” which an Indiana farmer argued should apply after the first sale of patented seed, “does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission.”
It’s not surprising the court ruled in Monsanto’s favor. Still, the case had merit: The farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, wasn’t challenging Monsanto’s claims that he knowingly planted seed with its protected genetics. Instead, he challenged the way patent law is currently applied to self-replicating products – a worthy effort, considering the injustices patents on seed have sown across America.
It’s relatively well understood that simply using seed with patented genetics – especially widely planted genetically engineered varieties, such as Roundup Ready soybeans – enters the user into a restrictive licensing agreement. Farmers sign these agreements at the time of sale, which includes a prohibition on planting more than one crop. The seed packaging also states that simply opening the bag binds the user to the agreement.
But Bowman thought that by purchasing soybean seed from a grain elevator he had found a legal way to plant seed from subsequent generations. He assumed the seed contained patented genetics but argued that the patent exhaustion doctrine allowed him to plant them anyway. Nevertheless, the Federal Circuit Court ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Mr. Bowman must pay Monsanto more than $80,000.