Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, is taking on agribusiness heavyweight Monsanto in a case hitting the Supreme Court tomorrow. Monsanto says Bowman, who has been using Monsanto's soybean seeds happily for years, is infringing its patents when he plants a second crop of soybeans each year. The breakdown, courtesy of NPR:
- Bowman has to sign a standard agreement when he buys Monsanto seeds for his spring crop, stating he won't save any of his harvest to replant the following year.
- But since his second crop is riskier, he decided to use cheaper seeds for that crop. Starting in 1999, he bought soybeans from a grain elevator. Local farmers drop off their harvest there, and it's sold as "outbound grain," not seed.
- But since most farmers use Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean seeds (they're resistant to widely-used weed killer Roundup) nowadays, the beans he bought still included the Roundup Ready gene. Bowman didn't believe Monsanto still had control over these beans; plus, he was getting a variety of different beans, not just Monsanto's, so "I couldn't imagine that they'd give a rat's behind," he explains.
- But Monsanto sued, and Bowman was ordered to pay the company $84,000 for patent infringement. "He wanted to use our technology without paying for it," says a Monsanto lawyer. Bowman appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
- His lawyers say patent law dictates that once you buy something covered by a patent, you own it and can use it for "ordinary pursuits of life." But Monsanto says this "patent exhaustion" principle doesn't mean Bowman can, effectively, make copies of Monsanto's product. Time puts it this way: Does a patent on a living thing extend to that thing's progeny?
- The biotechnology and computer software industries are on Monsanto's side, because "patent exhaustion" could hurt them in a similar way.
Twenty years ago it was easy to find cheap "public" seeds, but nowadays almost all seeds are patented and thus more expensive, even at small seed companies—and Bowman's case could really shake things up.