Supreme Court sides with Monsanto in major patent case
May 13, 2013
The Supreme Court usually isn’t friendly toward questionable patents, but it came down overwhelmingly on the side of agribusiness giant Monsanto Monday in a case that’s bound to resonate throughout the biotechnology industry.
The court ruled unanimously that an Indiana farmer violated Monsanto’s patent on genetically modified soybeans when he culled some from a grain elevator and used them to replant his own crop in future years.
“If simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention,” Justice Elena Kagan ruled in a short 10-page opinion. “The undiluted patent monopoly, it might be said, would extend not for 20 years as the Patent Act promises, but for only one transaction. And that would result in less incentive for innovation than Congress wanted.”
Bert Foer of the American Antitrust Institute warned Tuesday of a “long-term food monopoly” if the Supreme Court sided with agricultural giant Monsanto in a patent dispute.
“If I were writing the laws I would put some limitations on the types of conditions that can be placed on an initial sale,” he said on PBS Newshour. “I would say, after the initial sale you are subject to any licenses and contracts, and those can be reviewed by courts under such laws as the anti-trust laws and we can get some sort of a balance in the public interest.”
“Whereas, if you say it is only subject to patent infringement, you’re putting all the cards with the patentee and very few with the consumers or with all the other parties in the economic who are going to be effected.”
Foer remarked that society was increasingly dependent on patented technologies and the law was not keeping pace with the changes.
Under current patent law, once someone purchases an item they can use it as they wish and even sell it. However, they are prohibited from copying or replicating it. Due to this, Monsanto has required farmers to purchase brand new seeds every year rather than simply replanting seeds from their crops.
Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer, was sued by Monsanto for purchasing its genetically engineered Roundup Ready seed from a grain elevator. Monsanto said Bowman violated the firm’s patent rights by replanting the seeds rather than purchasing new seeds from the company. Bowman appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that farming was not equivalent of making copies of the seeds.
The Associated Press reported that the Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical of Bowman’s arguments on Tuesday. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal echoed that observation on PBS, but also noted that Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan were sympathetic to some of the farmer’s claims.