High court protects biotech patent rights

Published on: May 13, 2013

In a Supreme Court ruling issued May 13 in the Bowman vs. Monsanto case, the high court unanimously voiced support for the protection of intellectual property.

The question in this case was whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may repro­duce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. The court decided the farmer may not.

Also challenged, was when the patent is exhausted. Vernon Bowman repurchased soybeans and attempted to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto's permission. "Because Bowman thus reproduced Monsanto's patented invention, the exhaustion doctrine does not protect him," the court ruling notes.

The decision was a win for interests ranging from farmers and biotechnology companies who recognize the incentive for companies to continue to invest in new research and the role patent protection plays in fostering and protecting U.S. innovation across a broad range of industries—including agriculture, medicine, computer software, and environmental science.

"The Court's ruling today ensures that longstanding principles of patent law apply to breakthrough 21st century technologies that are central to meeting the growing demands of our planet and its people," said David F. Snively, executive vice president, secretary, and general counsel of Monsanto. "The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to invest in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs, and allows America to keep its competitive edge."

Many independent organizations and individuals expressed support for the protection and preservation of intellectual property rights. Dozens of friends-of-the-court briefs were filed in support of Monsanto including those from the Business Software Alliance including Apple and Microsoft and several universities, Monsanto reported.

American Soybean Association (ASA) president Danny Murphy, a soybean farmer from Mississippi, shared that without the protection of intellectual property that the court reaffirmed, the companies on whom my soybean farmers rely would have no real incentive to make the investments necessary to develop new soybean varieties that yield more, resist disease, weeds, and pests, are drought tolerant, or have improved nutritional profiles.

“Intellectual property protection sparked a sea change in investments by public and private seed breeders into improved seeds for soybeans and other crops," Murphy said. "The Supreme Court’s decision today recognized that if you take away the incentive for those entities to strive for a better seed, they won’t make those investments and farmers eventually won’t have the benefits of improved seeds.”

In the opinion of the court, Justice Elena Kagan explained that inventions are becoming more prevalent, complex and diverse, and that self-replication might occur outside the purchaser's control. That being said, "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. Patent exhaustion provides no haven for that conduct," the opinion said.  

Feedstuffs editor Andy Vance talked with Murphy about the importance of intellectual property rights to farmers, and his reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Bowman case. You can listen to the conversation via Feedstuffs In Focus, the podcast of big news in agriculture or by clicking here.