Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 12:43 PM

How Monsanto Applies to Nonagricultural Biotechnology

*Note: This article originally was published by on May 23, 2013.

The facts behind the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Monsanto v. Bowman are simple enough. Farmers are able to buy soybeans containing Monsanto’s patented glyphosate resistance technology under a license that permits them to plant and grow one generation of crops. Vernon Bowman skirted this program, however, by purchasing commodity soybeans from a grain elevator knowing that the seeds would nonetheless likely contain the very same Monsanto technology. He then planted the seeds, raised crops, and saved seeds from these crops to plant new crops. The Supreme Court held that Bowman’s actions infringed Monsanto’s patents because unlicensed growth of the seeds was a new making of the patented invention. Consequently, the doctrine of patent exhaustion did not provide any defense as to these new seeds.

This was not a surprising result for the biotechnology industry. The idea that patent rights in seed progeny are not exhausted by the original sale of their “parents” was well established in the United States, and is even codified in the European Biotechnology Directive.

The Court left us with a relatively clear answer regarding the scope of patent exhaustion related to seeds. The use of the purchased, licensed seeds for consumption and/or processing cannot be interfered with by the original seller, as the patent rights on those individual (sold) seeds have been exhausted. The planting and cultivation (i.e., replication) of those seeds, however, can only be done under a license from the patentee. In other words, even though someone sells you a bag of seed, you have no right to plant and grow that seed without a license (although there may be a good argument that the license should be implied in appropriate cases).

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