|Carpenter bee on Bee Balm in 2009|
Under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, the authorized sale of a patented article gives the purchaser, or any subsequent owner, a right to use or resell that article. Such a sale, however, does not allow the purchaser to make new copies of the patented invention. The question in this case is whether a farmer who buys patented seeds may reproduce them through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission. We hold that he may not.Following a trial, Monsanto was awarded $84,456. The verdict was affirmed on appeal.
The farmer also raised the issue of self-replicating seeds. The Court was skeptical of a blame-the-seed argument, particularly in this case where the defendant farmer "was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops. As we have explained, supra at 2-3, Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium."Our holding today also follows from J. E. M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l, Inc., 534 U. S. 124 (2001). We considered there whether an inventor could get a patent on a seed or plant, or only a certificate issued under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA), 7 U. S. C. §2321 et seq. We decided a patent was available, rejecting the claim that the PVPA implicitly repealed the Patent Act's coverage of seeds and plants. On our view, the two statutes established different, but not conflicting schemes: The requirements for getting a patent "are more stringent than those for obtaining a PVP certificate, and the protections afforded" by a patent are correspondingly greater. J. E. M., 534 U. S., at 142. Most notable here, we explained that only a patent holder (not a certificate holder) could prohibit "[a] farmer who legally purchases and plants" a protected seed from saving harvested seed "for replanting." Id., at 140; see id., at 143 (noting that the Patent Act, unlike the PVPA, contains "no exemptio[n]" for "saving seed"). That statement is inconsistent with applying exhaustion to protect conduct like Bowman's. If a sale cut off the right to control a patented seed's progeny, then (contrary to J. E. M.) the patentee could not prevent the buyer from saving harvested seed. Indeed, the patentee could not stop the buyer from selling such seed, which even a PVP certificate owner (who, recall, is supposed to have fewer rights) can usually accomplish. See 7 U. S. C. §§2541, 2543. Those limitations would turn upside-down the statutory scheme J. E. M. described.
Our holding today is limited--addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product. We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse. In another case, the article's self-replication might occur outside the purchaser's control. Or it might be a necessary but incidental step in using the item for another purpose. Cf. 17 U. S. C. §117(a)(1) ("[I]t is not [a copyright] infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make . . . another copy or adaptation of that computer program provide[d] that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program"). We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances.It might be a different case – as we all know exists – if this was simply a situation where bees, wind or other pollinators spread pollen from a patented crop to fertilize a non-patented crop and then some of the progeny contained patented or even new characteristics. (Frankencrops is one reason that some people are vehemently against genetically modified vegetables). Similarly, birds, other small animals and the wind frequently carry seeds from one location (i.e., a farmer who uses patented seeds subject to a licensing agreement) and drops them on land of another grower (who did not purchase the seeds or sign the licensing agreement).