U.S. justices hostile to argument against Monsanto
U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled on Tuesday that agribusiness giant Monsanto Company was in a strong position to claim that an Indiana farmer violated its patent for a type of soybean.
In a case closely watched by the biotechnology industry, the court is considering whether Vernon Bowman, 75, had performed an end-run around the law when he bought soybean grain typically used for animal feed but planted it instead.
The soybean crop turned out to contain Monsanto's patented genetics. Bowman said because the grain he used as seed was "second-generation" and not the first-generation sold by seed dealers, it was not covered by the patent.
The bulk of the argument focused on whether patent protections extended to multiple generations of a self-replicating product such as seeds, with several justices indicating that patent law should protect companies like Monsanto in such situations.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
Justice Stephen Breyer told Bowman's lawyer, Mark Walters, that Bowman, who was in the courtroom for oral arguments, could use the seed he had purchased for other purposes but could not harvest the crop from the next generation of seed.
"You know there are certain things that the law prohibits," he said. "What it prohibits here is making a copy of the patented invention. And that is what he did."
Likewise, Justice Elena Kagan clashed with Walters over his assertion that Monsanto could protect its patent rights by having contracts with farmers.
"All that has to happen is that one seed escapes the web of these contracts," she said.
That single seed, "because it can self replicate in the way that it can, essentially makes all the contracts worthless," Kagan added.
Several justices appeared concerned that a ruling for Bowman would stifle innovation.
"Why in the world would anybody spend any money to try to improve the seed if as soon as they sold the first one, anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?" said Chief Justice John Roberts.
Both sides sparred over to what extent Monsanto can exercise control over how farmers use later generations of its seeds.
Without the existing patent protections, "Monsanto could not have commercialized its invention," Monsanto lawyer Seth Waxman said.
Walters countered that the court should be wary of "choosing patent rights over private property rights" when deciding what farmers can do with seeds they have purchased.
The Obama administration intervened in the case in support of the federal appeals court ruling in Monsanto's favor.