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Publications | May 15, 2013
2 minute read

Supreme Court Rules on Patented Seed Case

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling this week on a case involving the use of patented seeds.  The ruling in favor of Monsanto illustrates how the law protects the inventor of a patented self-replicating seed.

The case, Bowman v. Monsanto, involved Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybean seed, which produces soybean plants that are immune to the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide.  Monsanto has obtained two patents on the genetically modified seed that it invented.  The corporation sells the Roundup-immune seeds to growers under a licensing agreement that grants the right to use the seeds to produce a single soybean crop.  In order to produce further crops from the patented seeds, the growers must purchase additional seeds from Monsanto.

An Indiana farmer bought soybeans from his local grain elevator, figuring they would mostly be Roundup Ready beans.  (The immunity is genetically passed from the seed through the growing plant to the new beans.)  He planted the seeds and sprayed the growing crop with Roundup, which caused any plants growing from ordinary seeds to die.  The farmer sold most of the crop but saved some seeds for planting the next year.  He did this for eight seasons; Monsanto was paid nothing for the farmer’s use of its patented seeds.

Monsanto sued the farmer for violating its patents.  The farmer’s defense was based on the legal principle that whoever buys a patented product can use it as intended – and a seed’s intended use is to grow into a plant that bears more seeds.  However, the court held that the purchaser of a patented invention cannot use the invention for the purpose of replicating it.  The farmer could eat or sell the Roundup Ready beans he had bought from the grain elevator – but he could not grow more of them, without infringing on Monsanto’s patents.

If you have questions about the case or how your business might be affected by it, please contact David Skidmore ( or 616.752.2491) or another member of the Agriculture Industry Group at Warner Norcross + Judd.