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Supreme Court Seems Ready To Side With Monsanto In Soybean Patent Case

(Dan Charles/NPR)

Updated on Tuesday, February 19, at 6:10 p.m. to add quote from Bowman.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a legal battle between St. Louis-based Monsanto and a 75-year-old Indiana farmer.

The case revolves around whether Vernon Hugh Bowman violated Monsanto's patent rights when he bought seeds from a grain elevator and planted them.

The inexpensive, second-generation seeds were intended for sale as animal feed, not to be planted. Most of them still contained Monsanto's patented, genetically-engineered traits — genes that allow the seeds to survive being sprayed with the company's widely-used Roundup herbicide. 

Credit (Rob Koenig/St. Louis Beacon/St. Louis Public Radio)
Bowman (at right) and his lawyer Mark P. Walters outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on Jan. 19.

The justices strongly questioned the argument that patent rights are "exhausted" once seeds are sold.

Chief Justice John Roberts wondered "why in the world" anybody would spend money to try to improve seed "if as soon as they sold the first one anybody could grow more and have as many of those seeds as they want?"

The central argument in the case hinges on whether or not growing a new crop from patented seed amounts to making new patented products, and therefore violates Monsanto's patent rights.

In an interview with reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court, Bowman said he wasn't trying to get around patent law when he bought what he called "junk seed" to plant it.

"I didn't look at it as a loophole," Bowman said, "Because I'd always been able to go to the elevator and buy the seed, you follow me? So I just looked at it that when they dumped it in there, that they had abandoned their patent."

In a statement on the company's website, Monsanto Executive Vice President and General Counsel David Snively said that today's case "highlights the importance of intellectual property protection in supporting America’s continued investments in breakthrough 21st century technologies that support the increasing demands of our planet and our people.”

Snively added that Monsanto is “confident the Court will give thoughtful consideration to the arguments expressed today." "America’s leadership in fostering the incentive to invest in research and development has created the world’s leading innovation economy, with millions of high-technology jobs—not just in our field of agriculture, but in other R&D-intensive fields like medicine, biotechnology, computer science and environmental science,” Snively said.

The case has broad implications for patents on a wide-range of self-replicating products from computer codes to live vaccines.

The court is expected to rule on the case by this summer.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience