Don’t Blame the Bean: The Monsanto Patent Decision

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Self-replicating technologies present intellectual property law with some unique challenges.

In the case of Bowman v. Monsanto Company (May 13, 2013), the US Supreme Court has weighed into this thorny field, and on Monday it delivered a unanimous judgment upholding the rights in Monsanto’s patented soybeans. (See our earlier post: Self-Replicating Technologies (Patents in the Field, Part 2).)

Monsanto sells its patented seeds under a license agreement. Farmers are permitted to plant the beans in one, and only one, growing season. Collection and replanting is prohibited under the terms of the license. Bowman bought seeds from a local grain elevantor, planted, harvested, collected and replanted those seeds in successive years. In this way, he was able to take advantage of the “Round-Up Ready” qualities of the genetically modified beans, without paying the usual fee that would be owed to Monsanto as the patent owner. In the court’s view, this deprived Monsanto of the reward that patent law provides for the sale of each patented article. The court was clear that “Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct.”

According to the court: “…we think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit. 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. …Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium. He purchased beans from a grain elevator anticipating that many would be Roundup Ready, applied a glyphosate-based herbicide in a way that culled any plants without the patented trait, and saved beans from the rest for the next season.”

The US Supreme Court sided with Monsanto and upheld the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decision.