May 201314

Indiana Farmer Loses U.S. Supreme Court Seed Patent Case

In a recent case arising out of Indiana, the United States Supreme Court addressed the patent exhaustion doctrine in the context of seed patents. Monsanto sued Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman alleging infringement of its patents covering its Roundup Ready seed. Bowman purchased and planted the Roundup Ready seeds and then saved seeds he recovered from that crop to use in future plantings. As a defense, Bowman argued that his actions were protected under the doctrine of patent exhaustion.

The exhaustion doctrine limits a patentee’s right to control what others can do with an article embodying or containing an invention. Under the doctrine, the initial authorized sale of a patented item terminates all patent rights to that item. By exhausting the patentee’s monopoly in that item, the sale confers on the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, the right to use or sell the item as desired. As the purpose of the patent law is fulfilled when the patentee has received money from the sale, the patent law affords no further basis for restraining the use and enjoyment of the thing sold. However, the doctrine does not extend so far as to allow a purchaser to make copies of the thing sold against the wishes of the patentee.

Despite Bowman’s argument that he used the seeds in a way that is normal for farmers, the Court decided that harvesting seeds from a planted crop was akin to making a copy of the patented seeds. The Court unanimously held that a farmer who buys patented seeds may not reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder’s permission. As noted by the Court, the applicability of the decision is limited and does not involve every situation with a self-replicating thing.

For more information on potential impacts of this case or patent law in general, feel free to contact the attorneys at Woodard, Emhardt, Moriarty, McNett & Henry LLP.