On Monday, a farmer was found guilty of patent infringement, essentially for planting soybeans. The farmer lawfully purchased genetically modified soybeans, planted them in the ground, and then harvested the resulting seeds. The farmer claimed he was not guilty through what the court characterized as a “blame the bean” defense, stating that he did nothing to “make” what would be considered the patented soybean. The farmer’s patent attorney also argued that the farmer’s conduct was permitted under the patent exhaustion doctrine, which allows individuals to resell or use products they have lawfully purchased. However, both arguments failed. The Court reasoned by considering the aggregate of the farmer’s actions that led to the creation of the patented soybean, all of which were done without Monsanto’s permission. While the farmer may not have actually created the seeds (that was an act of nature), he was by no means a passive observer – conduct the Court found to be patent infringement. In sum, the Court ruled that farmers cannot use Monsanto’s patented genetically altered soybeans to create new seeds without paying the company a fee.
In this case, the farmer purchased seeds directly from a grain elevator, a grain elevator the farmer believed included the genetically modified soybeans. He then planted those seeds in the ground, sprayed the sprouting plants with Round Up, and harvested the seeds from the surviving plants. In essence, the Court found that when farmers buy Monsanto’s patented seeds, they are prohibited from harvesting seeds grown from the resulting crop. This forces the farmers to buy new seeds every year instead of using the next generation’s seeds, which inherit the resistance to the herbicide Roundup, the crux of Monsanto’s patented seeds.
While, it could be argued that the Court’s ruling goes against the prohibition on patenting naturally occurring processes, the Supreme Court chose not to address the issue of whether Monsanto’s patent covers patentable subject matter. Either way, the the ruling will have limited implications as the Court stated their holding only applies to the case at hand. Of the few effects, the most notable is how Monsanto will undoubtedly attempt to use the ruling in its other patent infringement lawsuits against other farmers who have harvested the genetically modified soybeans from crops growing freely along the road. However, due to the Court’s limitation those cases may be distinguished from this as the self-replication of the product is likely occurring outside of the purchaser’s control.