What’s the case about?
The Doctrine of Patent Exhaustion holds that the authorized sale of a patented item extinguishes all of the patent holder’s rights to it. Any subsequent use of that item by the purchaser is not infringement. In other words, the purchaser of a patented item can do whatever he or she likes with it. But what if that item is capable of self-replication? Does the patent holder have the right to control subsequent generations of the item? This was the issue the Supreme Court confronted in Bowman v. Monsanto.
The story is this: Mr. Bowman, a farmer from Indiana, would plant soybeans two times each year. For his first crop, he purchased Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds. These seeds contained a patented genetic modification that made them resistant to the weed-killer Roundup. To make this purchase, Bowman had to agree not to replant any of the 2nd generation soybeans. He was allowed to plant the seeds once, but was prohibited from replanting the offspring.
Bowman complied with the terms of this agreement for his first crop, but he also planted a second crop of soybeans each year. He purchased the seeds for this second crop not from Monsanto, but from a local grain elevator at a significantly lower price. Bowman would sell some of the offspring from this crop and use the rest for replanting.
So how did Bowman infringe Monsanto’s patent? Well, as it turned out, some of the seeds from the grain elevator contained the Roundup Ready technology. Bowman knew this—he would plant these seeds and apply herbicide to them, killing all but the Roundup Ready ones. Monsanto told Bowman to discontinue this practice. When he refused, Monsanto filed a lawsuit seeking damages and an injunction.