Patent Wars Reach Supreme Court

Last week the Supreme Court heard the case of farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman vs. Monsanto regarding the legal question of whether the sale of a patented seed falls under the general doctrine of “exhaution” of the patent monopoly (that the sale of a patented item ends the patentee’s control over its uses), or if a seed should be treated differntedly from a manufactured artifact.

To ensure farmers will buy new seeds each season, Monsanto requires that farmers only plant the company’s genetically engineered seeds for one season. Bowman planted Monsanto’s GE soybean seeds from a local elevator and consequently violated Monsanto’s restrictions. He appealed the decision to pay the seed giant company $84,000 to the Supreme Court.

The questioning of the lawyers by the Justices during the hearing indicated that the Court will probably conclude that patent control of seeds extends past their sale (ie, that “exhaustion” does not apply to “self-replicating” patented items).

Groups such as Save our Seeds (SOS) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) submitted briefs to support Bowman and challenge Monsanto’s restrictive policies. CFS Executive Director, Andrew Kimbrell, states, “Mr. Bowman’s case represents a systemic crisis in U.S. agriculture. Through a patenting system that favors the rights of corporations over the rights of farmers and citizens, our food and farming system is being held hostage by a handful of companies. Nothing less than the future of food is at stake.”

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