Monsanto Company, a producer of herbicide resistant soybean seeds and technology, sued Vernon Hugh Bowman, a soybean farmer, for patent infringement. Bowman replanted second-generation seeds, which were the product of seeds purchased from a licensed Monsanto technology distributor. Monsanto argued that by planting the product of Monsanto’s herbicide resistant seeds instead of purchasing new ones, Bowman was in violation of the Technology Agreement for the seeds. The Federal Circuit upheld a district court decision awarding Monsanto damages for violation of their patented technology, reasoning that Monsanto's herbicide resistant technology was covered by patent regardless of whether it was the original seed or a product of the original seeds. Bowman contends that Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted once he bought the seeds and that use of progeny seeds is an expected use of the product. Monsanto responds that in the case of self-replicating technologies the patent extends to the technology, here, the trait of herbicide resistance, rather than the seed itself.
Patent exhaustion delimits rights of patent holders by eliminating the right to control or prohibit use of the invention after an authorized sale. In this case, the Federal Circuit refused to find exhaustion where a farmer used seeds purchased in an authorized sale for their natural and foreseeable purpose--namely, for planting.
The question presented is: Whether the Federal Circuit erred by (1) refusing to find patent exhaustion in patented seeds even after an authorized sale and by (2) creating an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies?
- Thomson Reuters News & Insight, Alison Frankel: Supreme Court conundrum: How far does a soybean seed patent go? (Jan. 17, 2013)
- Patently-O, Dennis Crouch: US Government Brief: Farmer who Purchases Commodity Soybeans Cannot Replant Those Beans Without Committing Patent Infringement (Jan. 22, 2013)
- Techdirt: Monsanto Wins Patent Dispute Against Farmer Who Bought Legal Seeds (Sept. 27, 2011)