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Court backs Monsanto's seed patent rights

Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer,

Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer, speaks with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington after pleading his case earlier this year. On Monday, the court ruled that he violated Monsanto's patents on soybean seeds resistant to its weed-killer. (Feb. 19, 2013) Credit: AP

In a ruling that drew sighs of relief from the biotechnology industry, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Indiana farmer violated agribusiness company Monsanto Co.'s patent for a type of soybean.

The court agreed unanimously with Monsanto that Vernon Bowman, 75, had performed an end-run around the law when he used the company's patented soybean seeds without seeking a license.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of the court that Monsanto's patent protections were not, in legal terminology, "exhausted" when Bowman used the seeds without the company's permission.

Kagan wrote that patent exhaustion did not allow a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.

If farmers were allowed to do so, "a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first items containing the invention," Kagan wrote. Such a result would lead to "less incentive for innovation than Congress wanted," she added.

For biotech companies in various sectors, not just agriculture, the ruling was a "reaffirmation" of the principle that patent protections extend to copies made of a patented item, according to Patricia Millett, a Washington lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

"It's very important for the innovation economy," she said.

In the ruling, Kagan specifically stated that the decision was limited to the case before the court and not all self-replicating products. She cited computer software as an example.

As a result of the ruling, Bowman will have to pay Monsanto $84,456 for infringing on the company's patent.

Bowman's attorney, Mark Walters, said the ruling "makes infringers out of 95 percent of America's soybean farmers."

The case arose when Bowman sought in 1999 to save money by buying commodity grain from a grain elevator.

Bowman said the patent did not cover the grain he used as seed because it was "second-generation," not the first-generation sold by seed dealers.

Bowman kept the seed generated from the successful crop and used it the following year.

Monsanto objected, saying Bowman was infringing on its patents.

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