United States: Patent Exhaustion Rejected: Patented Seed Purchaser Has No Right to Make Copies

The Supreme Court in Bowman v. Monsanto Co. ruled unanimously that a farmer's replanting of harvested seeds constituted making new infringing articles.  While the case is important for agricultural industries, the Supreme Court cautioned that its decision is limited to the facts of the Bowman case and is not a pronouncement regarding all self-replicating products.

In a narrow ruling that reaffirms the scope of patent protection over seeds, and possibly over other self-replicating technologies, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a purchaser of patented seeds may not reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.  Bowman v. Monsanto Co., Case No. 11-796 (Supreme Court May 13, 2013).

In this case, Monsanto had asserted two of its patents that cover genetically modified soybean seeds that are resistant to herbicide (Roundup Ready® seeds).  Monsanto broadly licenses its Roundup Ready® soybean seeds under agreements that specify that the farmer "may not save any of the harvested seeds for replanting, nor may he supply them to anyone else for that purpose."  Vernon Hugh Bowman is a farmer who purchased soybean seeds from a grain elevator.  Bowman replanted Roundup Ready® seeds in multiple years without Monsanto's permission.  The district court granted summary judgment of patent infringement against Bowman, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed.  Bowman appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

On appeal, Bowman heavily relied on the "patent exhaustion" doctrine, which provides that the authorized sale of a patented article gives the purchaser or any subsequent owner a right to use or resell that article.  Bowman argued that the authorized sale of the Roundup Ready® seeds exhausted Monsanto's patent rights in the seeds, because "right to use" in the context of seeds includes planting the seeds and reproducing new seeds.

Patent Implications

Speaking through Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Federal Circuit's decision that Bowman's activities amounted to making new infringing articles.  The Supreme Court held that "the exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto's permission."  Specifically, the exhaustion doctrine restricts a patentee's rights only as to the particular article sold, but "leaves untouched the patentee's ability to prevent a buyer from making new copies of the patented item."  The Supreme Court noted that if Bowman's replanting activities were exempted under the exhaustion doctrine, Monsanto's patent would provide scant benefit.  After Monsanto sold its first seed, other seed companies could produce the patented seed to compete with Monsanto, and farmers would need to buy seed only once.

In rebuffing Bowman's argument that he was using the seed he purchased in the manner it was intended to be used, and that therefore exhaustion should apply, the Supreme Court explained that its ruling would not prevent farmers from making appropriate use of the seed they purchase—i.e., to grow a crop of soybeans consistent with the license to do so granted by Monsanto.  However, as the Supreme Court explained "[A]pplying our usual rule in this context . . . will allow farmers to benefit from Roundup Ready, even as it rewards Monsanto for its innovation."

Tying the Supreme Court's decision in this case narrowly to seed (as opposed to other self-replicating technologies), Justice Kagan noted that the decision is consistent with the Supreme Court's 2001 decision in J.E.M. Ag. Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l, Inc., in which the Supreme Court concluded that seeds (as well as plants) may simultaneously be subject to patent protection and to the narrower protection available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA).  PVPA protection permits farmers who legally purchase protected seed to save harvested seed for replanting.  However, reconciling the two forms of protection, Justice Kagan explained, "[I]f a sale [i.e., of a patented seed] cut off the right to control a patented seed's progeny, then (contrary to J.E.M.) the patentee could not prevent the buyer from saving harvested seed." 

Other Self-Replicating Technologies

The Supreme Court's decision in Monsanto is, of course, important for agricultural industries.  If extended to other self-replicating technologies, it may also prove important for biotechnology companies and others  that rely on self-replicating technologies, including, for example, companies that own patent rights over viral strains, cell lines, and self-replicating DNA or RNA molecules.  If subsequent cases extend the "no exhaustion" holding of Monsanto to these technologies, patent protection would extend to copies made from the "first generation" product that is obtained through an authorized sale.

However, the Supreme Court cautioned that its decision is limited to "the situation before us" and is not an overarching pronouncement regarding all self-replicating products.  The Supreme Court suggested that its "no exhaustion" ruling might not apply where an article's self-replication "occur[s] outside the purchaser's control" or is "a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose," citing computer software (and a provision of the Copyright Act) as a possible example.  As explained by Justice Kagan, "We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances."  In this regard, the Supreme Court particularly noted that "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication."  Instead, Bowman "controlled the reproduction" of seeds by repeated planting and harvesting.  Thus, the Supreme Court suggests that a purchaser's "control" over the reproduction process likely will be a key inquiry in considering the patent exhaustion doctrine as it relates to other self-replicating technologies.  Of course, it remains to be seen how broadly lower courts will interpret the Supreme Court's ruling.

Antitrust Implications

By holding that Monsanto's restriction on replanting was within the scope of its patent rights, the Supreme Court effectively immunized that restriction from antitrust scrutiny.  Other court decisions have called into question other license restrictions viewed as going beyond the scope of patent protection as being potentially susceptible to an antitrust or patent misuse challenge.

The Supreme Court highlighted its application of the exhaustion doctrine last addressed in Quanta, which held that "the initial authorized sale of a patented item terminates all patent rights in that article."  This boundary line conventionally demarcated the end of a patent's protection and the beginning of a potential antitrust minefield.  Some commentators may interpret the Monsanto decision to push that line further out.  Importantly, however, the Supreme Court deemed the seeds at issue to be a "new product."  So construed, Monsanto's restriction on replanting did not affect the product's use, as in Quanta and Univis Lens, but rather came within the well-settled principle that "the exhaustion doctrine does not extend to the right to 'make' a new product."

The Supreme Court not only was doctrinally conservative in its Monsanto decision, it was also careful to explain that its holding is a narrow one.  Monsanto never exhausted its patent rights in the "new" seeds; indeed, it never truly "sold" them.  Rather, Bowman created new seed from seeds that Monsanto had sold.  The decision therefore may not portend a more general inclination to construe the scope of patent protection more broadly.  In fact, the Supreme Court went so far as to clarify that it could reach a different outcome were it presented with a different technology.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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