Last week, the case Bowman v. Monsanto Company reached the Supreme Court. Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman was a Monsanto customer who, instead of buying seeds from Monsanto for his next harvest season, opted for a riskier situation. He bought seeds from another vendor, hoping that it would contain some Roundup Ready seeds. Bowman planted the seeds, doused them in Roundup — some of his harvest held on, and he was able to save some seeds for the next year.
The case was really about whether patent rights to seeds — and other things that replicate, reproduce or grow — continue past the first generation. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, a move which extended not only to Monsanto’s pervasive agriculture technology, but also other modern agriculture, vaccines, cell lines, software, etc.
Farmers who buy seeds from Monsanto usually have to sign a contract that disallows them from saving seeds from the current harvest year for the following year. Farmers must purchase new seeds for every harvest season. In his argument, Bowman cited a principle called patent exhaustion, which he said lets him use products however he likes if he acquires them legally. However, lower courts ruled that Bowman’s actions were in violation of patent infringement.
A federal judge in Indiana fined Bowman over $84,000 to be paid to Monsanto, and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the decision. According to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “The exhaustion doctrine permits you to use the goods that you buy. It never permits you to make another item from that item you bought.”
The Supreme Court ruling in Monsanto’s opinion correctly defends patent rights, which allow companies in diverse industries, such as agriculture, vaccines, cell lines and software to take financial and intellectual risks. These rewards partly justify companies in investing millions of dollars over a long period of time in research and development, with an uncertain outcome and years to reap the benefits and recoup costs, if ever. If Monsanto did not have a practice of needing its buyers to sign such contracts, then there would be no point in the company, or any similar company, patenting its technology.
Conceived, Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan
March 1, 2013
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