Supreme Court Set To Hear Case On Whether Or Not Planting Legally Purchased Seeds Infringes On Monsanto Patent
from the please-get-this-right dept
The Supreme Court will be hearing a big patent case tomorrow. We wrote about it back in 2011 when the federal circuit appeals court (CAFC) put forth an absolutely horrible ruling basically saying that a farmer who legally purchased “community seeds” that included (legally) some Monsanto “Roundup Ready” seeds, violated Monsanto’s patent. The case is a bit complex, but I’ll just rerun my summary from back then:
The farmer, Vernan Bowman, bought official Monsanto seeds and planted his crops. Yet, Monsanto has rules that say you can’t re-use “Roundup Ready” seeds, but you can apparently sell “second-generation” seeds to grain elevators for use as “commodity seeds,” and doesn’t require that there be any restriction on the sale. Bowman later bought a bunch of such “commodity seeds,” which included some Roundup Ready seeds, and some that weren’t. Bowman was able to determine which of the plants came from Roundup Ready seeds… and then saved those seeds for replanting. Monsanto claimed this was infringement, even though the seeds were legally sold to the grain elevator and then from the elevator to Bowman without restrictions. On top of that, while Bowman had signed an agreement for his original seeds, he did not with this batch (and, indeed, even Monsanto admits he didn’t break the user agreement — just patent infringement for using the seeds).
As we noted at the time, this seemed to be a clear case of patent “exhaustion,” which the Supreme Court has supported in the past. Under patent exhaustion, once you sell a “licensed” offering, reselling it further down the supply chain does not infringe on the patent, since the initial purchase was authorized and the patent holder’s rights over that specific product have been “exhausted.” CAFC said exhaustion didn’t apply here because the seeds are “new.” That seems like a very troubling interpretation, and hopefully the Supreme Court (yet again) smacks a bad CAFC patent ruling down.
Lots of big farms have come out in support of Monsanto and, tragically, so has the federal government (pdf). Believe it or not, the Business Software Alliance (mostly a Microsoft front) has also sided with Monsanto (pdf), ridiculously arguing that a ruling against Monsanto could “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale.” That makes no sense, especially since software “piracy” is a copyright issue, not a patent issue. However, they’re arguing that people will interpret this to mean that “temporary additional copies” of software are made all the time (i.e., in RAM) and somehow that leads to piracy. Having read the brief a few times, they never really explain how they make that leap in logic, but they sure do bring up the totally debunked bogus stats about how copyright infringement is costing the industry “billions.”
The case really is ridiculous on many levels, but seeing how much firepower has come out in support of Monsanto (basically tons of big companies, lawyers groups and the US government), you can see that a lot of people have a lot of money tied up in keeping this broken system in place. Hopefully the Supreme Court sees through all of that and realizes that this entire case is ridiculous.