Bowman v. Monsanto—The Decision

May 30, 2013

Hello everybody out there in farm country. This is Rick Frank sitting in for John Block,  who is down on the farm! This radio commentary is brought to you by Monsanto, and John  Deere. They are all friends, supporters, and allies of a healthy farm economy and prosperous  rural America. Thank you.

And now for today’s commentary—

In a remarkable 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Vernon  Bowman, an Indiana soybean farmer, violated Monsanto’s patents by planting “bin-run”  commodity beans purchased from a grain elevator. Because 94% of soy beans planted in Indiana  are Roundup® Ready, most of the commodity soybeans were resistant to Roundup® weed killer.  According to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bowman used Monsanto’s patented technology in the  growing commodity soybeans and he knew it.

While the decision was limited to agricultural seeds, it could have significance for other  self-replicating technologies like human genes, vaccines, nanotechnology, and software. It’s  also good news for patented GMO products which represent our best hope to feed the world in  an environmentally acceptable manner.

The decision, written by one of the Court’s most liberal justices, Elena Kagan, fully  recognized the business implications of the case when she concluded, “Mr. Bowman planted  Monsanto’s patented soybeans solely to make and market replicas of them, thus depriving the  company of the reward patent law provides for the sale of each article.”

Bowman had argued that patent protection should not apply to the second generation of  commodity seeds because Monsanto’s patent rights in its seed were exhausted once the initial  seed was sold for planting. Bowman believed Monsanto’s rights did not extend to later  generations of beans raised from patented seed. In a rather succinct and straightforward opinion,  the Supreme Court rejected Bowman’s argument. The Court reasoned that planting and  harvesting a patented self-replicating, self-pollinating crop, such as soybeans, essentially  amounted to reproducing a patented seed. Following this logic, the Court concluded that  Monsanto and other seed patent holders have a right to control the reproduction of their patented  seed, holding Bowman infringed on Monsanto’s patents after he planted and harvested  subsequent generations of soybeans grown from patented seeds. The Court also rejected  Bowman’s “blame the bean” defense, noting that “he was not a passive observer of his soybeans’  multiplication and that the seeds he purchased did not spontaneously create eight successive  soybean crops.”

Beyond the obvious agricultural implications of the decision, it is refreshing to see the  liberals, moderates, and conservatives on the Court, appointed by Republican and Democratic  Presidents, recognizing the importance of scientific patents not only to the business community  but to the worldwide public for the benefits that this type of research and development can  provide. While unanimity is not likely with respect to hot button social issues – gay marriage or  affirmative action – the Supreme Court appears to be closing ranks on fairly non-controversial  economic issues.

Until next week, I am Rick Frank, sitting in for John Block in Washington.