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SCOTUS rejects farmer’s ‘blame the bean’ defense and patent exhaustion claim

Posted May 13, 2013 10:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A farmer with a “less orthodox approach” to use of patented seeds has lost his Supreme Court appeal in a patent infringement case.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman and his patent exhaustion argument in a unanimous opinion (PDF) by Justice Elena Kagan. The ruling is a victory for Monsanto, which sells patented soybean seed that is resistant to its Roundup herbicide. Farmers who buy the seed must sign a licensing agreement restricting their use of the seed to one planting. The farmers can then use the resulting crop or sell it as a commodity, usually to a grain elevator or agricultural processor.

Bowman, “it is fair to say, appreciates Roundup Ready soybean seed,” Kagan wrote. Bowman bought Monsanto seed for his first plantings of the season and sold the crop to a grain elevator. But he used a “less orthodox approach” for his second planting each season. Bowman bought “commodity soybeans” from a grain elevator, calculating that many of them would have Monsanto’s patented herbicide resistance. He then saved seed from the crop, which was indeed resistant to the herbicide, for subsequent second-season plantings.

Bowman had argued he was protected from an infringement claim by the patent exhaustion doctrine, which holds that an authorized sale of a patented article gives subsequent owners the right to use or resell that article. The Supreme Court disagreed.

“If simple copying were a protected use,” Kagan wrote, “a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention. The undiluted patent monopoly, it might be said, would extend not for 20 years (as the Patent Act promises), but for only one transaction.”

Kagan also wrote that she was rejecting another "seeds-are-special argument" by Bowman. He had claimed that soybeans naturally sprout unless stored in a controlled manner, and so it was the soybeans, rather than Bowman, that made replicas of Monsanto's patented invention.

"But we think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit," Kagan said. "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans’ multiplication.”

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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