Today, the Supreme Court will hear a patent case that’s been billed as the one to determine who owns the rights to seeds in the ground: the farmer who planted them on his land, or the company that invested resources in designing and selling them.
Bowman v. Monsanto centers on the conflict between 75-year-old Vernon Hugh Bowman, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer from Indiana, and agribusiness giant the Monsanto Company. Monsanto has a patent on its Roundup Ready soybean seeds, designed to be resistant to the company’s weedkiller, Roundup.
Farmers who purchase Monsanto’s seeds must sign an agreement that they will only harvest the resulting crop and not use any of its seeds for replanting. The company has invested heavily in designing its seeds, and planting second-generation Monsanto seeds undermines the company’s business.
Bowman has been a longtime Monsanto customer for his main crops, buying new seed every year. Beginning in 1999, however, he began buying cheaper soybeans from a local grain elevator only to use for planting a second crop of soybeans where he had just harvested his wheat.
That bean mixture was likely to contain some beans with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready gene, as it is now present in the majority of America’s soybeans.
Monsanto sued Bowman for a legal settlement of nearly $85,000. He was far from the first farmer to find themselves on the receiving end of Monsanto’s patent defense.
According to a joint report from the groups Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds, “Monsanto has alleged seed patent infringement in 144 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in at least 27 U.S. states as of January of 2013.”
But Bowman’s appeal, now, is the first of its kind to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. His lawyers are employing the “patent exhaustion” argument: Once a person purchases a patented good, they are free to do whatever they like with it.
The problem with that argument, Monsanto says, is that most patented goods can’t self-replicate the way a seed does. Industry groups in the biotech and software fields — two sectors whose products are easily replicated — have sided with Monsanto.
On behalf of its Patent Office, the U.S, government has filed a “friend of the court” or amicus curiae brief in support of Monsanto’s position. The government says Monsanto’s patent rights were violated by Bowman and a contrary ruling could have consequences for man-made cell lines, DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other technologies involving self-replicating features.© Food Safety News