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Supreme Court Tackles Biotech Case

Justices slated to hear the case of an Indiana farmer and outcome could impact range of patents.

Published on: Feb 19, 2013

A lot of agricultural eyes will be focused on Washington this week, and no they aren't waiting for Congress to write a farm bill, they'll be paying attention to testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing a case from an Indiana farmer in a patent battle with Monsanto. The producer is accused of using patented product illegally, but he contends that he is not using the original seeds covered by the patent.

It's a case the U.S. Justice Department didn't want the court to take up, but in the end it could have far-reaching consequences for development of biotech products and their marketing and protection for the future. At the core, according to a Bloomberg report, is the extent that a patent holder can control its use through multiple generataions of seed.

PONDERING PATENTS: Justices slated to hear the case of an Indiana farmer and outcome could impact range of patents.
PONDERING PATENTS: Justices slated to hear the case of an Indiana farmer and outcome could impact range of patents.

The farmer - Vernon Bowman - contends that he bought "junk" seed to plant after wheat on his fields. He farms about 300 acres. However, the soybeans he bought to plant did contain biotech traits - but was sold as uncleaned oilseed. The challenge for the court is how to handle the patent for a product that can self-replicate. Just how many generations can a seed company control a technology?

While some groups are rooting for Bowman to have Monsanto lose, others are watching this case and its potential to set new patent precedent for the future. And the impact goes beyond agriculture. If the court sides with Bowman, medical and agricultural biotech-focused research could be impacted. If companies can't capture the full value of the technology after spending tens of millions to develop it, they may invest elsewhere. However, Bowman's contention about buying junk material and the company's continue hold on its value remain a contentious issue.

The court is slated to hear arguments from both sides today. However its ruling will more likely come out in a few months. The next step in this process will be when the court rules, which will detail the complete impact. Stay tuned.