This case involved an Indiana soy bean farmer who, for his first crop of the year, bought Roundup Ready Soy Bean seed from an approved Monsanto dealer. After harvesting that crop, the farmer planned a second, and because of the shortened season, more risky crop of soy beans. Rather than buy the more expensive seed from Monsanto's distributor network, the farmer purchased soy beans from a local grain elevator, reasoning that because most farmers in the area used Roundup Ready soy beans, the beans purchased from the elevator were likely to contain genetic resistance to Roundup herbicide. The farmer continued this practice for his late-season plantings, including planting seed he saved from the year before, for eight consecutive crops. Eventually Monsanto discovered this practice and brought suit against him for patent infringement.
After having lost at trial, and an initial appeal, the case arrived at the Supreme Court earlier this year. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court sided with Monsanto, finding that the farmer was essentially replicating Monsanto's patent technology and therefore infringing on its patent. The farmer argued that his conduct was allowed under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, which limits a patentee's right to control what others can do with an article embodying or containing an invention. Under that doctrine, the initial authorized sale of a patented item terminates all rights to that item (e.g., once you have purchased a patented IPhone, you are free to resell that same item to anyone you choose). The Supreme Court, however, concluded that the doctrine was inapplicable because the farmer was not merely reselling the patented soy beans he purchased, but was making additional patented soy beans without Monsanto's permission. As the Court put it, "Monsanto's patent would provide scant benefit … [if] farmers themselves need only buy the seed once, whether from Monsanto, a competitor, or … a grain elevator."