Patent Exhaustion Doctrine Does Not Protect Farmers Who Replant Patented Seeds

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In a brief, unanimous opinion written by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court yesterday agreed with Monsanto that the patent exhaustion doctrine does not enable farmers to replant and reproduce patented seeds without the patentee’s permission. The Court emphasized the well-established rule that the doctrine restricts a patentee’s rights only as to the particular articles sold, and leaves untouched the patentee’s ability to prevent a buyer from making new copies of the patented item.

The Court did expressly note that its holding was limited – addressing the situation before it, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. “In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control. Or it might be an incidental step in using the item for another purpose . . . . We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances.”

I covered the patent exhaustion doctrine previously – see, for example, here, here, and here.

The decision likely has implications in other industries. For example, BSA/The Software Alliance filed a brief arguing that a contrary decision might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily duplicated. However, it also noted that a decision that went too in favor of protecting patent rights might unduly encourage nuisance software patent infringement suits.

The opinion, styled Bowman v. Monsanto Co., No. 11-796 (May 13, 2013), is available here.

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