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From the Lab to the Farm: Monsanto case affects farmers as well as providers of self-replicating technologies

A recent Supreme Court decision reaffirms the right of patent owners to control self-replicating technology.

Monsanto Co. owns patents on RoundUp Ready® transgenic seeds. Monsanto licenses its technology to seed producers, who sublicense it to farmers. Under the license agreement, a farmer is limited to planting seeds in a single season. Monsanto claims that farmers who harvest and then replant “second generation” seeds violate the agreement and infringe its patents. Vaughn Hugh Bowman, a soybean farmer, purchased harvested seeds (normally used for animal feed) and planted them to grow a soybean crop.

In the case of Bowman v. Monsanto Co., the Supreme Court unanimously held on May 13, 2013, that seeds harvested from a crop were “additional copies” of Monsanto’s patented invention and thus were not subject to the patent exhaustion doctrine. The patent exhaustion doctrine states that, once a valid sale of a patented article is made, the patent owner’s rights are exhausted as to that particular article. Bowman argued that each sold seed is a substantial embodiment of later generation seeds, such that sale of one seed exhausted the patent owner’s rights in all progeny of that seed. However, the court disagreed and upheld lower court rulings that later generation seeds are new copies of the patented article and are not covered by the patent exhaustion doctrine.

The Supreme Court refused the opportunity to address whether the patent exhaustion doctrine applies in this manner to other self-replicating technologies, such as vaccines, genetically altered cell lines, bacteria, viruses, DNA plasmids and vectors, and computer software. However, it is likely that lower courts will cite this case as authority with respect to other self-replicating technologies.

If you are a farmer purchasing licensed patent-protected seeds, this decision reaffirms the patent owner’s right to control the use of later generations of the seeds. If you are a provider of any type of self-replicating technology, this decision supports your right to control your technology through a combination of patent rights and contractual obligations.

If you have any questions regarding these or other patent matters, please contact Brian Chellgren or another patent attorney at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP.

 

To learn more about Brian W. Chellgren and his practice, visit his profile.

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