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Indiana Farmer and Monsanto Heading To U.S. Supreme Court

Lawyers representing an Indiana farmer will soon face those hired by agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto in a U.S Supreme Court patent infringement trial.

soybean field

Photo: Pro-Soil Ag Solutions (Flickr)

The upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case will weigh in on the patent rights surrounding use of biotech soybeans.

To help reduce the cost of risky late-season plantings, Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Bowman bought a mix of seeds from a local grain elevator. That mix, which contained some Roundup Ready seeds, is cheaper than those sold by Monsanto under the company’s brand name.

For nine years, Bowman sprayed his crop with the Roundup herbicide glyphosate and then saved the seed he harvested for next year’s planting.

Bowman’s lawyer Ed Haug says that practice led to a battle about how the seed could be used.

“So there’s a real question, a legal question, once a patentee sells their patented seed, after that first sale and that first use whether or not that exhausts the patent right with respect to future use of the seed,” Haug says.

When purchasing biotech seed from Monsanto, farmers sign a technology agreement that states they will only use the seed for one season. If the seeds are bought in a mix from a grain elevator, such as Bowman’s situation, the company requires no such contract from the farmer.

Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement in 2007. In September 2009, a district court awarded the company more than $84,000 in damages. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. upheld the decision in September of last year.

Bowman petitioned for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and court agreed to hear it during its current term, which began earlier this month. Haug says that he feels confident in his client’s legal position.

“At a minimum, it’s gotten the attention of the Supreme Court as an important issue. And I do say it’s an important issue because typically the U.S. Supreme Court will only take one or two cases a year, patent cases.”

In response to questions about the case, Monsanto issued the a statement saying it also feels a decision from the nation’s highest court will clarify language related to self-replicating technology used in farming.

Haug says the actual proceedings will likely occur sometime early next year.

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