In a remarkable 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Vernon Bowman, an Indiana soybean farmer, violated Monsanto’s patents by planting “bin-run” commodity beans purchased from a grain elevator. Because 94% of soy beans planted in Indiana are Roundup® Ready, most of the commodity soybeans were resistant to Roundup® weed killer. According to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bowman used Monsanto’s patented technology in the growing commodity soybeans and he knew it.
While the decision was limited to agricultural seeds, it could have significance for other self-replicating technologies like human genes, vaccines, nanotechnology, and software. It’s also good news for patented GMO products which represent our best hope to feed the world in an environmentally acceptable manner.
The decision, written by one of the Court’s most liberal justices, Elena Kagan, fully recognized the business implications of the case when she concluded, “Mr. 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.”
Bowman had argued that patent protection should not apply to the second generation of commodity seeds because Monsanto’s patent rights in its seed were exhausted once the initial seed was sold for planting. Bowman believed Monsanto’s rights did not extend to later generations of beans raised from patented seed. In a rather succinct and straightforward opinion, the Supreme Court rejected Bowman’s argument. The Court reasoned that planting and harvesting a patented self-replicating, self-pollinating crop, such as soybeans, essentially amounted to reproducing a patented seed. Following this logic, the Court concluded that Monsanto and other seed patent holders have a right to control the reproduction of their patented seed, holding Bowman infringed on Monsanto’s patents after he planted and harvested subsequent generations of soybeans grown from patented seeds. The Court also rejected Bowman’s “blame the bean” defense, noting that “he was not a passive observer of his soybeans’ multiplication and that the seeds he purchased did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.”
Beyond the obvious agricultural implications of the decision, it is refreshing to see the liberals, moderates, and conservatives on the Court, appointed by Republican and Democratic Presidents, recognizing the importance of scientific patents not only to the business community but to the worldwide public for the benefits that this type of research and development can provide. While unanimity is not likely with respect to hot button social issues – gay marriage or affirmative action – the Supreme Court appears to be closing ranks on fairly non-controversial economic issues.