The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Monsanto in a case regarding the replanting of seeds from genetically modified soybeans. The unanimous decision backs up Monsanto's claim that farmers must purchase the company's patented seeds every year rather than replanting seeds from a previous crop.
The case dates back to 1999, when Indiana soybean farmer Victor "Hugh" Bowman tried to save himself a little bit of money. Instead of buying new Roundup Ready soybean seeds from Monsanto, he bought some cheap soybean seeds from a grain elevator. Those seeds, a mixed "commodity crop," came from a variety of sources and were intended for industrial use. Bowman, however, planted the seeds as a secondary, riskier crop in the hopes that some of the plants would be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller.
Monsanto sued in 2007. Bowman lost
and was ordered to pay $84,000 for the use of Monsanto's patented genes. He appealed the decision and the Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides in February
Bowman and his lawyers have long argued that patent law allows someone to purchase something and then resell it, the same way you might sell your old microwave in a garage sale. The court found that Bowman could have done just that — bought the soybean seeds and then resold them — but he could not plant and grow new soybean plants. The so-called patent exhaustion doctrine
, Kagan wrote, "does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto's permission, and that is precisely what Bowman did."
Interestingly, Bowman argued that since soybean seeds will sprout on their own —"self-replicate" being an important term here — then the seeds themselves created the new plants and new seeds. The court rejected this idea, saying it was blaming the bean, and pointed out that it was Bowman who planted the seeds and created his own cultivated crops.
"Our holding today is limited," wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the court's decision, "addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse. 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."
One of Bowman's attorneys, Edgar H. Haug, told ABC News today that they are disappointed in the ruling, "but beyond that, we are particularly surprised that the Supreme Court did not use this case to address the possibility of self-replicating technology more broadly. It appears to be a narrow holding in this case that only goes to farmer Bowman."
A few companies — as well as the Obama administration (pdf
) — had backed Monsanto's suit, which has its own website devoted to the case called Innovation at Stake
. Monsanto has argued that the case is about much more than soybeans, saying it could apply to all kinds of biotech product lines where patentable technologies could be easily replicated.
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