The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of biotech giant Monsanto, closing the door on a patent case that has pitted a smalltime farmer from Indiana against a titan of the agriculture industry.
The high court said early Monday that 75-year-old farmer Vernon Bowman of Indiana violated Monsanto’s patent rights when he purchased a mix of seeds from a grain elevator that he later planted on his Midwest farm. That mix included patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds manufactured by Monsanto that are sold under license because they can hold up against their namesake, a nasty pesticide regularly used on farms.
Bowman argued that he could do whatever he wanted with the Roundup Ready seeds since he obtained them rightfully from a grain elevator and the terms of Monsanto’s licensing agreement under the patent did not apply to him. Under Monsanto’s terms, Roundup Ready seeds can only be harvested once and must not be saved or reused.
“If they don’t want me to go to the elevator and buy that grain, then Congress should pass a law saying you can’t do it,” Bowman told RT in February.
“If they then claim that I can’t use that, they’re forcing their patent on me,” Bowman he said to Huffington Post earlier this year. “No law was ever passed that said no farmers can’t go to the elevator and buy grain and use it, so to me they either forced their patent on me or they abandoned their patent by allowing it to be dumped it with non-Roundup grain.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that Bowman indeed violated the licensing terms.
“By planting and harvesting Monsanto’s patented seeds, Bowman made additional copies of Monsanto’s patented invention, and his conduct thus falls outside the protections of patent exhaustion,” the court ruled. “Were this otherwise, Monsanto’s patent would provide scant benefit. After Monsanto sold its first seed, other seed companies could produce the patented seed to compete with Monsanto, and farmers would need to buy seed only once.”
“Under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, the authorized sale of a patented article gives the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, a right to use or resell that article. Such a sale, however, does not allow the purchaser to make new copies of the patented invention,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. “The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without thepatent holder’s permission. We hold that he may not.”
Monsanto’s practices both in the courtroom and on the farm have made the company increasingly the target of criticism in recent months, and a series of affairs in Washington has done little to weaken the opposition. Campaigns against the company have been renewed as of late following the passing of a congressional agriculture spending bill that included a provision — dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by its critics — that provides legal immunity to biotech entities that experiment with genetically modified and genetically engineer foods. Additionally, the relationship between Monsanto and the country’s high court has been called into question since one of the justices, Clarence Thomas, formerly served as a lawyer for the St. Louis-based company.
On May 25, an international series of rallies to protest Monsanto is scheduled to occur with demonstrations planned on six continents.