By Dennis Crouch
Mr. Bowman v. Monsanto Co., Docket No. 11-796 (Supreme Court 2012)
Beginning its 2013 term with a bang, the Supreme Court has granted Vernon Bowman's petition for a writ of certiorari in the Indiana farmer's longstanding battle against Monsanto Co. The patents at issue cover Monsanto's genetically modified seed technology that protects broadleaf plants such as soybeans from being damaged by the application of the popular broadleaf herbicide glyphosate (another Monsanto invention known as RoundUp).
After losing at the Federal Circuit, Bowman presented the following questions to the Supreme Court:
Patent exhaustion delimits rights of patent holders by eliminating the right to control or prohibit use of the invention after an authorized sale. In this case, the Federal Circuit refused to find exhaustion where a farmer used seeds purchased in an authorized sale for their natural and foreseeable purpose - namely, for planting. The question presented is:
Whether the Federal Circuit erred by (1) refusing to find patent exhaustion in patented seeds even after an authorized sale and by (2) creating an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies?
In its brief-in-opposition, Monsanto reformulated the question as follows:
Whether the Federal Circuit correctly ruled that Monsanto's patent rights in biotechnology related to genetically modified plants (here, patented technologies that make soybeans resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides) are independently applicable to each generation of soybeans embodying the invention, such that a grower who, without authorization from Monsanto, creates a new generation of genetically modified soybeans infringes Monsanto's patents.
When asked for commentary on the case, the Solicitor General advised the Supreme Court to deny certiorari. In doing so, however, the Solicitor was harshly critical of the Federal Circuit's precedent on exhaustion – stating flatly that the Federal Circuit's "conditional sale" doctrine is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent.