Farmer’s Seedy Practices Violate Patent Protection, Says Supreme Court

It was a case of small-town farmer going up against the goliath corporate giant. However, both the law and facts favored the giant, so the giant won. In my view, that’s the right result.

Image copyright held by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Soybeans–Copyrighted image by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Bowman v. Monsanto Co. The Court held that Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman violated Monsanto’s patents on Roundup Ready soybeans. The Hoosier’s huckster ploy was planting beans from a grain elevator instead of buying seed for subsequent plantings from Monsanto, as his original contract provided. Bowman was betting that the grain elevator seeds would be mostly Roundup Ready soybean progeny, and they were.

Roundup Ready soybeans are one of many genetically modified organisms (GMOs) grown as crops in the United States and abroad. Because of biotechnical engineering, the plant carries a gene that lets it withstand applications of glyphosate, a broad-spectrum weed killer sold under the brand name Roundup. Compared to various other herbicides, glyphosate breaks down relatively quickly in the environment. Using it on Roundup Ready crops saves farmers time and money.

The opinion by Justice Elena Kagan rejected Bowman’s “seeds are special” arguments. Yes, plants normally replicate themselves. “But we think that blame-the-bean defense tough to credit,” wrote Kagan. Bowman actively planted and cultivated the beans. His actions went beyond the license granted by Monsanto when farmers buy seed and grow the beans. And allowing such actions would deprive Monsanto of the incentives granted by patent protection.

The case would have been far different if Monsanto had been going after an organic farmer whose fields became seeded by GMOs borne by the wind. But Bowman was basically just trying to save some money. If he felt the patent protections were too broad, he should have lobbied his legislators or switched to another crop.

As Robert Barnes at the Washington Post notes, vaccine makers, software designers, and others have a stake in the outcome too.

For every invention that pays off, many more fail. Patent protection is the legal system’s way of providing an incentive for researchers to keep working and betting on long shots.

That’s more than just a hill of beans.


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