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.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Volpe and Koenig, P.C.
O'Melveny & Myers LLP
Smith Gambrell & Russell LLP
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Volpe and Koenig, P.C.
O'Melveny & Myers LLP
Smith Gambrell & Russell LLP
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions