The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday bolstered Monsanto Co.’s ability to control the use of its genetically modified seeds, ruling that companies can block efforts to circumvent patents on self-replicating technologies.
The justices unanimously upheld an $84,456 award Monsanto won in a lawsuit against Vernon Hugh Bowman, an Indiana farmer. Rather than buying herbicide-resistant soybean seeds from a Monsanto-authorized dealer, Bowman used harvested soybeans containing the technology to plant his crops.
“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,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.
The case may affect makers of live vaccines, genetically modified salmon, and bacteria strains used in medical research, potentially helping makers of those products restrict use beyond the first generation. Even so, the court said its ruling was a narrow one that didn’t resolve all issues concerning patents on self-replicating technologies.
“We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex and diverse,” Kagan wrote. “In another case, the article’s self-replication might occur outside the purchaser’s control.
“Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose.”
The case centered on a technology that has helped make Monsanto the world’s largest seed company, with $14.7 billion in annual revenue, as well as a prime target for opponents of genetically modified food.
St. Louis-based Monsanto inserts genes into crops, letting them withstand application of the herbicide Roundup. Farmers who buy so-called Roundup Ready seeds must accept restrictions on their use, agreeing not to save the harvest for planting in a later season.
Monsanto has sued 146 U.S. farmers for saving Roundup Ready soybeans since 1997, winning all 11 cases that went to trial, the company says.
Bowman sought to get around Monsanto’s rules from 1999 to 2007 by buying less expensive soybeans from a grain elevator. Because the elevator accepted harvests from farmers using Monsanto seeds, the second-generation beans proved to be herbicide-resistant. The farmer says he saved $30,000 for his farm.
Monsanto sued Bowman. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the award against Bowman in 2011.
The Supreme Court rejected Bowman’s contention that Monsanto had “exhausted” its patent rights by the time he bought the seed.