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Monsanto Triumphs in Soybean Patent Case before Supreme Court

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WASHINGTONThe U.S. Supreme Court on Monday affirmed an $84,456 judgment against an Indiana soybean farmer, marking a victory for Monsanto Company and other owners of intellectual property that is capable of self-replication.

Growers who purchase Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds agree to plant them in only one season because a genetically-engineered trait that is resistant to weed killers is passed on to future generations.

Vernon Hugh Bowman honored the terms of a special licensing agreement, planting Roundup Ready seeds each year for the first crop of the season, then selling the crop to a grain elevator.

But the farmer also purchased from a grain elevator commodity seeds that happened to contain Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology. Bowman not only planted them in his fields, he saved the seeds to use the following year, and he continued to do so for years.

The court rejected the farmer's central argumentthat Monsanto's patent rights had been "exhausted" following an authorized sale of its seeds from local farmers to the grain elevator and that the biotechnology giant had no right to control his use of the soybeans.

In a unanimous decision, Justice Elena Kagan said Bowman could do many things with the seeds he purchased from the grain elevator, just not use them to plant more soybeans since he was reproducing "Monsanto's patented invention".

Otherwise, the court observed, Monsanto would receive little benefit because farmers would only need to purchase one seed, then produce later generations of the seeds whose patented trait is passed on to future generations.

"Monsanto still held its patent, but received no gain from Bowman's annual production and sale of Roundup Ready soybeans," Kagan wrote. "The exhaustion doctrine is limited to the 'particular item' sold to avoid just such a mismatch between invention and reward."

Kagan cautioned that the court's holding was "limitedaddressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicated product."

The ruling was not much of a surprise. During oral arguments earlier this year, the Supreme Court justices hammered Bowman's lawyer with questions , expressing skepticism that the farmer had the right to plant the Roundup Ready seeds without Monsanto's authorization.

"Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want"? John Roberts, the chief justice, asked at the time.

 

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