At the height of this spring
season, the Supreme Court planted a seed of hope for the biotechnology and
other industries that offer self-replicating technologies. In Bowman v.
Monsanto Co., 2013 U.S. LEXIS 3519 (2013) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com
subscribers], the court unanimously ruled that farmer Vernon Bowman
infringed upon Monsanto's patents on soybean seeds when he replanted these
genetically modified seeds to create more crops without paying Monsanto a fee.
The question before the court was "whether a farmer who buys patented
seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent
holder's permission." Monsanto holds patents on genetically modified
soybean seeds, Roundup Ready, which are resistant to glyphosate, the active
ingredient in many herbicides.
Monsanto sells Roundup Ready seeds directly to farmers and to distributors who
then sell the seeds to farmers under a special licensing agreement that limits
farmers' use of these patented seeds to one planting. Under the Monsanto
license, the farmer may use the crop produced from that planting, for example,
for household consumption or as animal feed, but may not use the harvested
seeds for second, third (etc.) planting cycles. This means that farmers need to
buy seeds from Monsanto or from a licensed Monsanto distributor each season.
Farmer Bowman thought of an "unorthodox" way to get around the
agreement. He bought the Roundup Ready seeds for the first season planting, but
for the second season of each year, he purchased seeds from a grain elevator
with a reasonable expectation that many of them are genetically modified
Roundup Ready seeds. He replanted these seeds. This pattern continued for eight
years, until Monsanto caught up with Mr. Bowman's subterfuge and sued him for
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