13 May 2013

Law in Plain English: Bowman v. Monsanto Co.

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Bowman v. Monsanto Co.

Monsanto developed and patented genetically modified seeds which they sold to farmer Bowman. Bowman planted the seeds, and then saved (and used) the harvested seeds for later plantings. Monsanto then sued Bowman for planting the saved seeds as an infringement of Monsanto's patents. Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, once an authorized sale of a patented article occurs, the patent holder’s rights to control the use and sale of that article are exhausted, and the purchaser is free to use or resell that article without further restraint (this is analogous to the first-sale doctrine in copyright and trademark law). However, in this case, patent exhaustion would allow farmers to buy Monsanto's patented, genetically modified seeds just once and then use the harvested seeds again and again without compensating Monsanto. The District Court and the Federal Circuit agreed with Monsanto that patent exhaustion shouldn't apply, and as a result, Bowman's use of the harvested seeds infringed on Monsanto's patents. The questions before the Court were whether the Federal Circuit erred by (1) refusing to find patent exhaustion in relation to the genetically modified seeds; and (2) creating an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission.As a result, Bowman's conduct infringes on Monsanto's patents. The practical impact of this decision may reach beyond genetically modified seeds to other areas--any areas where copies of a particular item can be made.
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