February 19, 2013
Today, the Supreme Court will hear a patent case that’s been billed
as the one to determine who owns the rights to seeds in the ground:
the farmer who planted them on his land, or the company that
invested resources in designing and selling them.
Bowman v. Monsanto centers on the conflict between
75-year-old Vernon Hugh Bowman, a corn, wheat and soybean
farmer from Indiana, and agribusiness giant
the Monsanto Company.
Monsanto has a patent on its Roundup
Ready soybean seeds, designed to be resistant to the company’s
Farmers who purchase Monsanto’s seeds must sign an agreement that
they will only harvest the resulting crop and not use any of its
seeds for replanting. The company has invested heavily in designing
its seeds, and planting second-generation Monsanto seeds undermines
the company’s business.
Bowman has been a longtime Monsanto customer for his main crops,
buying new seed every year. Beginning in 1999, however, he began
buying cheaper soybeans from a local grain elevator only to use for
planting a second crop of soybeans where he had just harvested his
That bean mixture was likely to contain some beans with Monsanto’s
Roundup Ready gene, as it is now present in the majority of
Monsanto sued Bowman for a legal settlement of nearly $85,000. He
was far from the first farmer to find themselves on the receiving
end of Monsanto’s patent defense.
According to a joint report from the groups
Center for Food Safety and
Save Our Seeds,
“Monsanto has alleged seed patent
infringement in 144 lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small
farm businesses in at least 27 U.S. states as of January of
But Bowman’s appeal, now, is the first
of its kind to make it all the way to the Supreme Court.
His lawyers are employing the “patent
Once a person purchases a patented
good, they are free to do whatever they like with it.
The problem with that argument, Monsanto
says, is that most patented goods can’t self-replicate the way a
Industry groups in the biotech and
software fields - two sectors whose products are easily replicated -
have sided with Monsanto. On behalf of its Patent Office, the U.S.
government has filed a “friend of the court” or amicus curiae
brief in support of Monsanto’s position.
The government says Monsanto’s patent
rights were violated by Bowman and a contrary ruling could have