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Published: Tuesday, 5/14/2013

Soybeans and invention

GUEST EDITORIAL

Vernon Bowman, an Indiana farmer, bought a mix of soybean seeds from a grain elevator, planted them in a late-season crop, and used seeds harvested from that crop to plant his late crop the following season.

Included in that mix, intended mostly for animal feed, were Monsanto’s patented genetically altered seeds. They allow farmers to use herbicide, such as Roundup, to kill weeds without damaging the soybean plants.

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds must sign a license agreement that prohibits them from saving seeds from the crop for replanting. Mr. Bowman, however, argued he had the right to plant and save any seeds, including Roundup Ready seeds, purchased from the grain elevator without following Monsanto’s rules, because the company could no longer control use of seeds once they were sold to the grain elevator.

In a unanimous ruling this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled correctly for Monsanto. If Mr. Bowman were given the right to make copies of the seeds, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court, “a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention.”

Mr. Bowman bought Roundup Ready seeds for his main crop, and accepted Monsanto’s conditions. But for his later crop, he sidestepped Monsanto by planting the cheaper seeds from a grain elevator. The American Soybean Association called his practice “unorthodox.”

Monsanto sued Mr. Bowman for patent infringement, contending that he used and copied Roundup Ready soybean seeds without authorization. A federal appeals court upheld a ruling against Mr. Bowman for patent infringement. 

The Supreme Court properly affirmed that ruling, and the principle that a farmer cannot reproduce patented seeds without permission of the patent holder.

— New York Times



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