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Supreme Court appears to side with Monsanto in seed patent case

Justices question farmer’s argument that patent exhaustion allows him to use the seeds

It looks like another big win for the big guy. Agricultural giant Monsanto appeared to steamroll elderly Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman in oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, in a case that will decide if it is infringement to use Monsanto’s patented “Roundup Ready” herbicide-resistant soybean seeds without paying the company a fee.

Normally farmers are required to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year—they can’t just save the seeds from the crop and replant them. Bowman, thinking he’d found a loophole in the contract, instead purchased a mix of seeds from a grain elevator, which included some Roundup Ready seeds. Monsanto sued him for infringement.

Bowman has argued that patent exhaustion allows him to do whatever he wants with seeds he legally obtained, and that Monsanto is being too extreme.

“The reach of Monsanto’s theory is that once that seed is sold, even though title has passed to the farmer, and the farmer assumes all risks associated with farming, that they can still control the ownership of that seed, control how that seed is used,” Bowman’s lawyer, Mark P. Walters, said at oral argument.

Lower courts have not been sympathetic to that argument, and now, it seems, neither is the Supreme Court.

The justices were more hostile toward Bowman’s lawyers, and Monsanto’s lawyers were allowed to talk uninterrupted for long periods, which the New York Times reports is typically a sign of victory to come.

“Without the ability to limit reproduction of soybeans containing this patented trait Monsanto could not have commercialized its invention and never would have produced what is, by now, the most popular agricultural technology in America,” said Seth P. Waxman, lawyer for Monsanto.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to agree. “Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?” he asked.

 

Read more about Monsanto’s patented seeds on InsideCounsel:

IP: The Supreme Court levels its eye at agricultural GMOs

Monsanto lawyer says company will sue only farmers who illegally use patented seed technology

Monsanto seed patent case headed to Supreme Court

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