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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week on behalf of a 75-year-old Indiana farmer who is challenging the seed company Monsanto over its patent policy.
The farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, grows soybeans, corn and wheat on a 300-acre farm. At issue is a Monsanto requirement that farmers who plant Monsanto’s seed must agree not to save the seeds so farmers have to buy new seeds every year.
Each year, in accordance with Monsanto’s regulations, Bowman plants his main soybean crop using seeds from Monsanto that contain the company’s trademarked Roundup Ready gene. The seeds allow farmers to spray crops for weeds using Roundup without hurting their crops.
After planting and harvesting his first crop, Bowman planted a second crop late in the growing season using commodity soybeans he purchased from a grain elevator. Because the late crop has a greater chance of failure, he did not want to pay for the more expensive Monsanto seeds. The seeds he purchased from the grain elevator came from a variety of sources and some, most of them, were Roundup Ready.
Bowman is arguing that farmers throughout history have been allowed to purchase commodity seeds for their crops from grain elevators. He argues that Monsanto’s patent on the seeds is exhausted after the original seed is planted and harvested. He is further arguing that Monsanto had rights to the original seeds sold to all the original farmers but not to any Roundup Ready seeds that end up in the grain elevator.
His agreement with Monsanto was not to save his own seeds; it did not specify that he could not purchase seeds from another source, including commodity seeds. That agreement did not specify that farmers who purchase seeds from Monsanto could not sell them on the commodities market.
The case has raised interest across a variety of industries including biotechnology, Apple, Microsoft and others because of the ease with which software can be pirated and the potential for using patented technology to produce unlimited copies of the original invention. The U.S. Justice Department supports Monsanto’s position.
The case is likely to hinge on the specifics of patent law and in 2008 the Supreme Court affirmed the principle of patent exhaustion when it ruled that once computer chips were sold to a manufacturer, the seller’s rights were exhausted.
It makes one wonder the might and the right of Monsanto to attempt to control every subsequent generation of plant after the original seed is planted and harvested. Those rights can’t live on in perpetuity.