The Supreme Court has handed down its much anticipated decision in Bowman v. Monsanto Co., holding that the defense of patent exhaustion does not apply to the practice of planting and harvesting patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.
The case centers on the Roundup Ready gene, which confers resistance to glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup. Monsanto owns U.S. Patent Nos. 5,352,605 and RE39,247E, which cover the Roundup Ready gene, as well as seeds incorporating the gene. The Roundup Ready gene stably integrated into the genomic material of soybeans sold by Monsanto, which means that once the seeds are planted, the plants that grow from those seeds and any seeds produced by that plant also have the Roundup Ready gene.
Monsanto markets both the Roundup Ready seeds and the Roundup herbicide to farmers. However, the seeds are sold subject to a licensing agreement that permits a grower to plant the purchased seed in only one growing season-the grower in prohibited from saving any of the harvested seed for replanting in a subsequent growing season. Growers are permitted under the agreement to consume the seeds or to sell the seeds as a commodity for eventual consumption. Due to the popularity of Roundup Ready seeds, a significant proportion of commodity seeds are Roundup Ready.
Vernon Bowman purchased Roundup Ready seeds from a licensed seller each year for his first planting of the growing season. Bowman also made a second planting each season, for which he used seed that was not purchased from a licensed seller. Instead, Bowman purchased commodity seed, planted the seed, treated the plants with glyphosphate herbicide, and harvested the seed from the surviving plants, which he then used for second plantings in subsequent growing seasons. Because these seeds survived the glyphosphate herbicide treatment, they necessarily possessed the Roundup Ready gene. Ultimately, Bowman harvested eight crops through this system of growing and replanting, effectively generating a homogenous Roundup Ready source of seed that was not purchased from Monsanto.
Monsanto sued Bowman in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, alleging that Bowman's harvesting and replanting of Roundup Ready seeds infringed its patents. In his defense, Bowman asserted that the doctrine of patent exhaustion prevented Monsanto from controlling his use of the seeds because they were the subject of a prior authorized sale. The trial court rejected Bowman's patent exhaustion defense, finding for Monsanto. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed, concluding that the patent exhaustion defense was not available to Bowman because he had created newly infringing articles through the harvesting and replanting-Bowman had replicated Monsanto's patented technology by planting the seeds and thereby creating newly infringing plants and seeds.
The Supreme Court, like the district court and the Federal Circuit, concluded that Bowman could not rely on the doctrine of patent exhaustion. The Court held that while the patent exhaustion doctrine restricts a patentee's right to control what others can do with a particular article sold, it does not affect the patentee's ability to prevent a buyer from making new copies of a patented item. Thus, the Court determined that the patent exhaustion doctrine enabled Bowman to resell the patented commodity soybeans he purchased, or consume the beans, or feed them to his animals without interference from Monsanto, but it did not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto's permission.
The Court relied on its precedent in J.E.M. Ag. Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l, Inc., where the Court explained that only a patent holder, and not the holder of a certificate issued under the Plant Variety Protection Act, could prohibit a farmer who legally purchases and plants a protected seed from saving harvested seed for replanting. The Court also dismissed Bowman's argument that patent exhaustion should apply in this case because soybeans naturally self-replicate, and therefore the seeds themselves-and not Bowman-were responsible for producing copies. Such a "blame-the-bean" defense was unpersuasive in light of the Bowman's active role in purchasing, planting, selecting, harvesting, and replanting the infringing seeds for eight successive crops.
The Court took care to limit its holding to the situation before it, stating that it is a closer question as to whether the patent exhaustion doctrine would apply where an article's self-replication occurs outside the purchaser's control, or is necessary by incidental step in using the item for another purpose.