In a unanimous decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court backed the agribusiness firm Monsanto on its soybean patents. The justices concluded that an Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, violated the company's intellectual property rights when he refused to pay royalties on unlabeled soybeans he bought that contained genes patented by the company.
The court ruled that Monsanto's patents cover not just genetically engineered seeds distributed by Monsanto and its agents, but also seeds circulating in the environment that contain Monsanto's genes.
Bowman never disputed Monsanto's patents—which apply to genes that make soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. But he claimed that the company's right to charge royalties had been "exhausted" because the unlabeled seeds he bought from a local dealer and planted were the progeny of plants grown from previously purchased Monsanto seed. As a result, Bowman argued that his seed purchases weren't covered by Monsanto's customary patent license. Although Bowman had signed a Monsanto license in previous years—and paid the extra required fees—he did not continue to do so. Instead, he bought "commodity beans," which are usually sold for feed or other products, from a local granary. He later sprayed glyphosate on his crop and saw that it flourished, indicating that the anonymous seeds contained Monsanto's genes. He said he had written to Monsanto seeking information on its patent license rules, but argued that he never got a clear answer. Instead, Monsanto took him to court for violating its license.
Speaking for the entire court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 13 May opinion: "The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission. We hold that he may not."
The court also rejected an argument that Bowman was not liable because the beans themselves—and not the farmer—replicated Monsanto's patented genes. "But we think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit," Kagan wrote. "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops."
Kagan's opinion also noted that the ruling may not have broad implications. "Our holding today is limited—addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product," she wrote. "We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse. In another case, the article's self-replication might occur outside the purchaser's control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose." So judges will have to look at every case on its merits.