US Supreme Court rules for Monsanto in soybean patent case

13 May 2013 19:00  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)—The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that a farmer in Indiana did indeed violate agribusiness titan Monsanto’s patent on genetically modified soybeans when he reused harvested beans to plant future crops.

In a case carefully watched by the biotechnology industry, the nation’s highest court effectively reaffirmed the value of patent protection and the means by which inventors can protect their ability to recover their investment in research and development of new products.

It also answered the question of whether the authorized sale of one generation of a patented plant seed exhaust a patentee’s right to control subsequent generations of that seed.

The case of Bowman v. Monsanto centered around whether Vernon Bowman had violated the company’s patent when he acquired harvested soybeans that he went back and planted in the field to make subsequent harvests.

Even though a second-generation crop was produced, the beans possessed the Roundup Ready herbicide trait technology, which Monsanto has spent millions to create and market to farmers who spend considerable more for the seed than conventional varieties.

Bowman then repeated the same scenario for several years and in effect, according to the court ruling, made multiple copies of a patented invention.

To counter the Monsanto claim, Bowman had argued that it was not his intention to defraud the company even though he had signed a technology agreement where he agreed to use the seed for planting a single commercial crop and not to save or replant any of the soybeans.

Prior to the modern era of seed technology advancement it was a common practice for US farmers to "catch" their own seed from the harvest, especially with cotton and corn varieties, and then use that same batch to grow another crop and was primarily motivated by economics as well as a desire to replicate desirable traits.

In October of 2007 Monsanto discovered Bowman was violating the agreement and filed a patent infringement suit. In September 2009 the US District Court in Indiana granted Monsanto’s motion for summary judgment and rules infringement and awarded the company $84,456.20 in compensatory damages.

In October 2009 Bowman appealed to the US Court of Appeals, which in 2011 unanimously affirmed the district court decision. This led Bowman to file in December a petition with the Supreme Court, which in the fall of 2012 granted the petition and agreed to hear the case.

Bowman’s attorney argued that he was simply trying to acquire seeds that would grow a crop without having to purchase modified seed varieties that come with a steeper price due to the technology fees. The lawyer tried to convince the court that due to Monsanto’s position within the market that the company has eliminated a farmer’s ability to buy less expensive seeds.

One of Bowman’s positions was that the soybeans he gathered from harvesting were self-replicating but in the ruling the court did not find merit in that stance.

“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. It was Bowman, and not the bean, who controlled the reproduction of Monsanto’s patented invention,” said Justice Elena Kagan.

For their part Monsanto said Monday that this was not just about protecting its seed innovations but was centered on the protection of intellectual property and supporting innovations that benefit millions of Americans in their everyday lives.

"The Court's ruling today ensures that longstanding principles of patent law apply to breakthrough 21st century technologies that are central to meeting the growing demands of our planet and its people," said David Snively, general counsel of Monsanto.

"The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs, and allows America to keep its competitive edge."

By: Mark Milam
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