On January 23, 2013, CropLife International (CLI) filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in Bowman v. Monsanto (no. 11-796), supporting the view that the authorized sale of a patented seed does not extinguish the patentee’s right with regard to the use of next generation of seeds for planting. Therefore persons who plant progeny seeds, without the consent of the patentee, and, in turn, produce a next-generation of seeds are liable for engaging in an unauthorized making under 35 U.S.C. §271(a).
Monsanto has developed and patented a genetically-modified soybean that bears the trait of resistance to the herbicidal compound glyphosate. Seeds bearing such herbicide resistance are sold by Monsanto and its licensees under the trade name Roundup Ready®. By virtue of that trait, a farmer can plant the patented soybean, and treat a resulting crop with a glyphosate-based herbicide, such as Roundup®, so as to selectively kill off any undesired weeds that have infested the crop, without damaging the crop itself.
Bowman, a farmer from Indiana, chose not to buy the patented seeds from Monsanto or a licensed seed dealer. Instead, he purchased commodity soybeans from a grain elevator, with the aim of using the beans for planting. Commodity soybeans are a heterogeneous mixture of soybeans collected from farms in a given region and are principally used as feed and for making food products. Suspecting that some proportion of the commodity soybeans he purchased were progeny of the herbicide-resistant soybeans first introduced into the market by Monsanto and its licensees, Bowman planted the same, treated the field with a glyphosate-based herbicide, and successfully grew herbicide-resistant soybean plants bearing a next-generation of herbicide-resistant soybeans. Monsanto sued Bowman, asserting that the production of a next-generation of herbicide-resistant soybeans from the commodity beans constituted an unauthorized making of Monsanto’s patented soybean under 35 U.S.C. §271(a).
The Question Presented
The case raises the basic question of whether the doctrine of patent exhaustion should reach activities such as those engaged in by Bowman and insulate from liability those who engage in producing a next-generation of seed. The doctrine of patent exhaustion is generally understood as holding that once a patented item is sold in an authorized fashion, the patentee relinquishes the right to claim that any subsequent use of the same infringes on its patent estate. This case is unique in that it asks whether this doctrine should apply when the patented item sold, here as seed, is capable of being propagated and the use of its progeny, e.g., for planting, necessarily implicates a “making” of a next-generation of that item.
The Arguments before The Supreme Court
The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, finding Bowman liable for patent infringement. That appellate court held that the doctrine of patent exhaustion does not and should not reach the acts of making in which Bowman engaged; otherwise, the rights conferred by Monsanto’s patents would be “eviscerated.”
Among the issues raised on appeal, Bowman and the amici supporting him deny that he engaged in a making, asserting that the herbicide-resistant soybean plants derived from the commodity soybeans sown by Bowman actually engaged in such acts.
In its amicus brief, CLI responds by arguing that the term “makes,” as used in Section 271(a), has its plain and ordinary meaning, which embraces the concepts of “bringing about” or “causing.” CLI contends that Bowman, through his acts of planting and cultivating, brought about and caused the formation of a next-generation of herbicide-resistant soybeans. Alternatively, CLI argues that, even if the concept of a “making” only literally reaches the acts of the herbicide-resistant soybean plants Bowman cultivated, Bowman would still be liable for those acts under principles of agency-instrumentality law. Based on his acts of planting and cultivating, CLI asserts that Bowman exercised sufficient control over the herbicide-resistant soybean plants he raised that they should be treated as mere instrumentalities of his, the conduct of which can and should be attributed to him.
Were acts like Bowman’s beyond a patent’s reach, CLI cautions that patentees would face diminished incentives to develop and bring to market valuable agricultural innovations, which require long term and significant financial resources. To develop and bring these innovations to market, the plant science industry must be able to receive a return on its investments. Seed sales, therefore, provide an important means for fueling the industry’s cycles of innovation.
Over the past 15 years, innovative plant biotechnology products have been estimated to translate into more than $78.4 billion in economic benefits for farmers around the world. Deeming acts like those Bowman engaged in as beyond the reach of a patent not only threatens these economic gains, but also society’s ability to feed, fuel and clothe our ever-growing population and to develop green-technologies that will help reduce the environmental foot-print associated with traditional farming practices.
Although this case focuses on seed technology, the ruling in the case could potentially impact the rights patentees and consumers can enjoy in any “self-replicating” technology that is patented and made available to the market.
CLI is a global federation representing the plant science industry and a network of regional and national associations in 91 countries. Monsanto is a corporate member of this federation but was recused from participating in the preparation of CLI’s brief.