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Should corporations be allowed to patent genes?

May 15, 2013

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

In mid-May, the Supreme Court ruled on a case that pitted a 75-year-old Indiana farmer against the agriculture giant Monsanto. The case centered on whether the farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, had violated Monsanto’s patent on a genetically modified soybean.

While the ruling may seem to affect only farmers, its interpretation could affect prices of products ranging from computer software to farm goods.

Monsanto owns the patent for a popular soybean that has been genetically modified to be resistant to the weed killer Roundup, an herbicide that is also patented by company. The seeds, called Roundup Ready, are three times as expensive but are extremely resilient to weed killer, allowing farmers to spray for weeds without affecting the plants. Farmers have tried to regrow seeds from the first generation, which Monsanto said violated its patent.

Farmers must sign a license agreement with Monsanto promising to use Roundup Ready seed for their first-growth plantings and also promising not to save some of the seeds to grow their next year’s crop.

Bowman had signed such an agreement, and had several high-yield fields planted with licensed Roundup Ready seeds. He also had lower-yield fields, so he wanted cheaper seeds to plant in those. He went to the local grain elevator and bought harvested soybeans, which are usually used for livestock feed.

Because Roundup Ready seeds are so popular, accounting for up to 90 percent of the nation’s soybean crop, Bowman knew that many of the seeds he was buying to replant were going to be the genetically modified soybean seeds. He eventually produced eight separate harvests from the seeds he bought and using second- and third-generation seeds.

Monsanto found out and sued Bowman, arguing that the farmer had violated the contract and the company’s patent. Bowman fought the lawsuit but lost in the lower courts, where he was ordered to pay nearly $85,000 in damages. The Supreme Court then accepted the case.

The case revolved around two different, and often conflicting, legal doctrines. One doctrine says that once you buy a product, it is yours to do with what you please. If it is a car, you can paint it, sell it, or drive it into a ditch and bury it. This is called patent exhaustion.

The only thing you can’t do is copy the car. This would violate the patent that the manufacturer has on the car; therefore, you are infringing on the patent. This is the second doctrine the court considered.

In Bowman v. Monsanto, this question was asked: Is generating seed from a patented plant the same as copying the plant? The plant is not an exact genetic copy of the plant, but it does contain up to half of the patented genetic material that is owned by Monsanto.

Bowman argued that soybeans naturally replicate, and therefore nature, not Bowman, was responsible for the copying of patented genetic material.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of Monsanto. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion, saying that Bowman is perfectly free to purchase seeds from a seed elevator and use them to plant fields.

What he can’t do is test them for Roundup resistance, and then harvest and replant seeds from those plants without paying Monsanto a fee, which Bowman did.

“Bowman devised and executed a novel way to harvest crops from Roundup Ready seeds without paying the usual premium,” Kagan wrote for the court, rejecting what she called Bowman’s “blame-the-bean defense.”

“Bowman 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,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan also expressed concern for invention and innovation, which are at the heart of patent law. “If someone is able to copy a patented product simply by planting it and collecting its progeny, “a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention,” Kagan wrote. Then, innovators would have less motivation to invest in and take a risk on new inventions.

The implications for the case are far-reaching, going beyond the fields and into your homes and pockets. But Kagan’s opinion limited the scope of the ruling on future self-replicating products like genetically engineered organisms and software that could be cheaply and easily replicated.

“We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex, and diverse,” Kagan wrote. “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.”

The opinion concluded: “We need not address here whether or how the doctrine of patent exhaustion would apply in such circumstances.”

What do you think?

Do you agree with the court’s ruling that the farmer violated Monsanto’s patent? Is his argument that nature did the replication a sound argument? Is protecting patents, and encouraging innovation, important? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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Comments
2/14/2014
17844
Alec
Mifflinburg
I feel some seeds will not produce fertile offspring so therefore the farmers must buy the seeds over and over again.

10/16/2013
Watertown/MA
Liam O
Rimas/WHS
No. Their patent is on the original product that was sold. if said product reproduces then it is no longer patented because it is not the original product.

9/27/2013
watertown Ma
Luke L.
Rimas WatertownHighSchool
I personally think patents are a good thing. This is because if you make something successful people are going to copy it no matter what so I think they should keep Patens

9/27/2013
watertown ma
Jacqui
Rimas/ Watertown
The court's ruling was fair since the farmer knew he violated his contract. He purposely planted the seeds when he knew he couldn't. Protecting patents is important because people could copy it, resulting in a decreasing value.

6/3/2013
Irving/TX
Kenia
Bradley/ Nimitz HS
The court's ruling was fair considering the farmer did in fact, knowingly, break his contract. His argument is invalid because he deliberately planted the seeds knowing they were going to grow. Protecting patents and encouraging innovation is a crucial step for the future. Helping to protect individuals ideas and innovations will only benefit the world as a whole.

5/31/2013
Irving/TX
Dennys A.
Bradley/Nimitz
I agree with the courts ruling due to the fact that the farmer had indeed violated his contract. Protecting patents is very important due to the fact that if everyone could copy it then value would decrease and there would be less profit under it. Monetary value would decrease drastically and companies would lose a lot of money.

5/30/2013
Irving/Texas
Darian
Bradley/Nimitz
I agree with the court's ruling because he went against his contract. His argument that it happen on it own isn't strong enough to support his claim. Protecting patents are very important because inventors don't want other people stealing there ideas. If the Government didn't protect people inventions they would be scared to make new ones because they don't want them stolen .

5/30/2013
Irving/Tx
Kevin
Bradley/Nimitz
Although I do believe that protecting patents and innovation is important I cannot side with the corporation. The corporations that deal with genetically modified seeds or other genetically modified products cannot expect their customers to uphold such rigid patenting claims. If a farmer is able to get a second generation from the first bought generation then they should legally be allowed to do so. If the seed companies truly want to have that level of control over their consumers then they will have to create seeds that do not yield seeds for a second generation but they should also expect farmers to choose other seed companies who do allow farmers to have multiple generations. I don’t agree with the lower court Judge over the patent and I don’t agree with the Supreme Court’s judgment either. The farmer had a sound argument and should have been allowed to keep planting as he saw fit.

5/30/2013
Irving/Texas
Maddie
Bradley/Nimitz
Technically, Bowman did violate Monsanto's patent. He agreed to only use their product and promised not to save them for the follwing year. Although he bought different and cheaper seeds, he planted them knowing some of them would be genetically modified. Agriculture is imperative across the globe, so innovation should always be encouraged, but in this case, big business had the upper hand and won.

5/30/2013
Irving/Texas
Samantha N. S.
Bradley/Nimitz
Bowman had violated the terms of agreement in his contract by actively planting 8 more harvest from from the Roundup Ready seeds. His excuse that nature did the replication is not sufficient because it was not entirely out of his control. He was aware of what was happening & continued to grow the plants, and so he should have payed the expected fee for it. I think the court's decision to protect the patents was wise in terms of encouraging future innovations- nobody is going to want to create new products if it is not economically beneficiary for them.

5/30/2013
Irving/Tx
Adrian
Bradley/Nimitz
Since there is a contract that goes with the purchase of the Roundup Ready seeds that specifically states that the buyer must only use the first-generation seeds, Bowman did violate Monsanto's patent. Bowman knew what the contract said, and he signed it when he purchased the seeds. Regardless of what nature does on its own, the contract clearly states that only the first-generation seeds can be used. Because of this, the seeds that are produced from the crops cannot be used even though it was nature that created them and not a human. Bowman's argument wasn't a formidable argument since the contract had cleared up that only the first-generation seeds could be used. Protecting patents and encouraging innovation is important because that is how we progress as a society. We give the people who created useful things credit with patents and we allow innovators to create even more useful things for us now by encouraging innovation.

5/29/2013
Irving/Texas
Monica A
Bradley/Nimitz
I disagree with the courts ruling. Bowman paid his dues for theseeds and she be aable to do as he pleases with the results of the seed's natural life. If Monsanto did not want their seeds to be used without having been paid for, they should have made them sterile. The company should have made the rules of their product more apparent

5/29/2013
Irving/TX
Alexis
Bradley/Nimitz
Corporations should have the right to patent genes if they want to. If the subject at hand( which is the soybean) is naturally replicated, I don't see the problem. The doctrine may prohibit patent replication but in this case the item at hand isn't an exact replica. The doctrine also makes a point in recognizing that the owner is free to do what they will with their item. By allowing patent genes within corporations it stimulate's a greater desire to seek for new idea's and products.

5/29/2013
Irving/TX
Kelly
Bradley/Nimitz
I don't see the harm as long as they make sure there is nothing wrong with what they've changed and its not harmful toards people. I dont think he violated Mosantos patent, and I do believe he had a good argument.

5/29/2013
Irving/Tx
Kelsie
Bradley/Nimitz
I disagree with the court's ruling of Monsanto's patent because Bowman did not break the contract. Nature replicated the soybean not Bowman, he cannot control how the beans grow. He created the beans using second and third generation seeds therefor he did not replicate Monsanto's bean.

5/28/2013
Irving/Tx
Elyssa
Bradley/Nimitz
The farmer has as much rights to create something new just as inventors can. Car producers based their newer and improved cars on older models. Inventors base their inventions on other products; an inventors job is to make something better and more efficient so genetically modifying a soybean to resist a weed killer is making a more efficient soybean. But the problem is that he violated his agreement with Monsanto’s. In violating this agreement Bowman knew what he was getting himself into. Although nature did the replication of the seed he was not forced to use the seeds so he didn't have a strong argument. Protecting patents and innovations are both good for the businesses. Business's are getting paid for anything done to their patent even though technically they did nothing to invent it.

5/28/2013
Irving/Texas
Helen
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that corporations should be allowed to patent genes because if they are not allowed to patent their work then they will have no motivation to continuously improve and develop new technologies. When others are able to replicate their inventions the companies loose profit and the incentive to create new things would decrease.

5/28/2013
Irving/Texas
Delaney
Bradley/Nimitz
Patenting genes is tricky business, because like with the Monsanto soybean, they can replicate themselves. The farmer did violate the patent because he didn't create the bean he just replanted the seeds that came from the plant. It was natural replication. But, protecting patents is also very important because it encourages creativity and innovation. Perhaps genes should have a time limit patent on them like medicines do. After a drug has been out for a certain number of years other companies can make a generic form of that drug. This is for the common good of the public because the original form is usually much more expensive. If the same thing was done with the patented Monsanto soybean and with all gene patents this could be a great compromise!

5/27/2013
Irving/Tx
Joshua B
Bradley/Nimitz
No I don't think it should be allow to patent a soybean. Soybeans are a part of nature and you shouldn't be able to patent nature. What is ok is to patent the product roundup since someone invented the week killer. If people are allow to patent nature then what else's can they patent.

5/27/2013
Irving/Tx
Tasia
Bradley/Nimitz
I disagree with the courts ruling of him violating the disagreement with Monsanto, because they had specifically pointed out the fact that he had Roundup Ready on his plants. Also another point to make they said to not re-plant Monsanto seeds they never made it clear in the agreement that you couldn't use the seeds to go buy more seeds. I don't think protecting patents is that important because if someone can make the product even better than that will change things overall.

5/24/2013
Irving/Texas
Jessica W.
Bradley/Nimitz
Bowman did violate his contract with Monsanto because it simply states if you use soybeans that are patented by Monsanto then you must pay the fee and that is something Bowman did not do. Although he is right that nature is partly responsible for the replication of the beans, he still try to find a way around the fee and therefore violated the contract. Because of this, protecting patents, and encouraging innovation is very important. Without it new technologies would never be found, and the economy would suffer because no one is investing.

5/24/2013
Irving/Texas
Giancarlo
Bradley/Nimitz
The farmer duplicated the bean with more than 50 percent of the original one. Therefore, he did not break the contract that he signed with Monsanto. Nature can replicate the beans but the farmers use the patent to jump start their crops. Protecting patents and encouraging other innovations is important because the farmers can make a profit out of this. Not only will they supply the locals food but also grow economically.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Yeny
Bradley/Nimitz
The farmer didn't violate the agreement that he signed with Monsanto because when he planted the soybean he used when he bought the seeds “using second- and third-generation seeds”. The other plants that Bowman used were the ones they agreed to use and he can't control the way the soybeans will grow and violate the contract. Someone could buy a set of sunflowers seeds an plant them but if they violate something that you agree to, you can't contradict something that nature did on its own. You can't just assume that the farmer broke the agreement without actually testing the soybeans that he bought and then take actions based on the results. Innovations should be something for us to seek and have something new but not use it to copy something that can get you in trouble later.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Yessica
Bradley/Nimitz
The farmer created a copy with more that 50 percent of the original bean therefore he did violate his contract that he signed with Monsanto's patent which stated that the farmers "promising not to save some of the seeds to grow their next year's crops." He should have bought more beans instead of claiming the innovation his. His theory of the ability to patent genetic beans is by nature is not a good statement because nothing is normal about it, it is playing with life itself. However if there is going to be genetic material all the legal right should be given to the creator.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Crystal
Bradley/Nimitz
In this case, Bowman and Monsanto's contract was deliberately violated by Bowman. After the purchase of Monsanto's product. It's like taking someone's essay and plagiarize it and call it your own, plus taking credit for it. His argument was invalid and vague, obviously he lost this round of debate.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Leslie
Bradley /Nimitz
The farmer did violate Monsanto patent but because of this reason shouldn't the farmer know that life revolves in reproduction. If in life, material stuff are reproduce to keep evolving, what made him think that nature could have not cause the seeds to reproduce. He is just making an excuse to make him seem true when in reality his argument of nature is not a sound argument. And in protecting patents and encouraging innovation is important because if people do not pay attention of what other people are doing then there will be a lot of theft with stealing other peoples belongings. And this is important to increase the chances of work for others.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
April S.
Bradley/Nimitz
The farmer didn't violate Monsanto's patent. The “offspring” of the beans are not Monsanto's idea, only the first generation of the seeds are Monsanto's. If we encourage this type of innovation in the genetics of a soybean, then we will have to worry about people being modified in this way. This would bring up arguments of religion and other ethical things that people might think that this violates in its path. If we start genetically modifying human genes, will the offspring be modified also like the beans are? There are a lot of problems with the innovation of genetically modified objects.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Misael
Bradley/Nimitz
When it comes to replicating that exact copy of that type of soybean yes the court got it right because bowman used the gathered seeds of Monsantos invention. Therefore bowman should pay for the privilege of using that type of seed. The argument that it was just nature is not a sound one because it was he not nature whou put the seeds in the ground in the first place. Protecting patents is important for encouraging innovation because if ideas aren't protected then what is the point of innovating.

5/23/2013
Irving/Texas
Grace
Bradley/Nimitz
Bowman seems to have been in the wrong here because he made a contract with Monsanto stating to do certain things and they both agreed to it. Bowman has broken the contract and therefore is guilty. Bowman is a farmer and knows his way around nature. He knows what can happen. There fore his argument that nature did the replication was not a sound argument. Protecting patents and encouraging innovation is very important because all of it is work. It provides jobs and growth.

5/22/2013
Irving/Tx
Samantha S
Bradley/Nimitz
The court's ruling is what I agree with. Bowman's argument that nature did the act on its on is a bit ridiculouse, because it's almost a no brainer that nature would do that. He knew that nature would replicate parts of the same genes from Monsanto's plant when he purposely made his 8 soybean crops to be like Monsanto's. He totally did the “blame-the-bean defense” as an excuse.

5/22/2013
Irving/TX
Gabe
Bradley/Nimitz
I do believe that Bowman violated his contract that he made with Monsanto after purchasing their product. It is similar to buying a book and then plagiarizing the information in that book as if it were your own. I also agree with Justice Elena Kagan that Bowman knowingly replicated the soybeans and it wasn't, as he explained, an event nature was solely responsible for. There is the question on what should and should not be patented simply on the premise that companies can create legal monopolies if their invention is the best for the consumer. With the patent Monsanto was able to create a monopoly on the soybean market, but I believe that this case is more involved of the breaking of contracts and less of the issue of patents. I believe that if the innovation should not be able to be patented if it contributes to the greater good and is a consumer need, rather than a consumer want.

5/21/2013
Irving/Texas
April K.
Bradley/Nimitz
I agree with the court's ruling that the farmer violated Monsanto's patent. Bowman's argument that nature did the replication is not a sound argument, because he knew what nature could do. He knew that nature would replicate parts of the same genes from Monsanto's plant when he purposely made his 8 soybean crops to be like Monsanto's. Like Justice Kagan said, he was just using the “blame-the-bean defense” as an excuse. Protecting patents and encouraging innovation is important because it is how people make money and make their jobs.

5/21/2013
Irving/Texas
Zachery
Bradley/Nimitz
The ability to patent genes, to change the way something is made, call it your own and sell it? That just doesn't sound like a good thing to me. Does that mean later down the road people could start patenting the way living, breathing things are made? Bowman the farmer did violated Monsanto’s patent, so I do agree with the supreme courts ruling because his argument on saying that nature did the replication and not himself, isn't a very sturdy argument. He didn't have to use those replicated soybeans, but he did anyway which in turns violates the agreement he signed with Monsanto’s. If there is a going to be patents on genes then I believe that if you put the effort and hard work into creating something no mater what it is, you should be able to patent it and call it your own without other people stealing it and calling it their innovated creation.

5/21/2013
Irving/Texas
Wesley
Bradley/Nimitz
This whole subject is very gray. First, the ability to patent genetic material is something that strikes a chord with me. A person is tweaking nature and is then calling it his own product. Personally, genetic material should not even be subject to being patented. Nevertheless, I will sidestep that issue because of the mere business aspect of this case. Monsanto's patent on his weed-killer resistant beans marks that certain strand of bean as his property, subject to his selling for his profit. But, I want to redefine maybe some original perceptions of the seed. A seed is not a one time, one plant product. It is instead an investment, where generations and generations of plants and seeds will come from. Thus, when buying seeds, I'd make the argument that you are also purchasing the future generations of that seed. Thus, Monsanto can take either two obvious approaches: 1) Enforce a contract that prevents buyers from using second-generation seeds or 2) Adding interest rates to their seeds, giving the company a profit from future generations. Since the company did use a legal contract that forbade saving seeds, they can legally protect their work. Nevertheless, the farmer used seeds that he got from a grain elevator. Thus, because he did not buy these seeds, he does not have the right to the plant the seeds, the seeds produced, or to any future generations of that seed.

5/20/2013
Irving/Texas
Cody
Bradley/Nimitz
The Supreme Court needs to create a new law defining this matter. If the new product contains half or more it should be considered copying the idea. If it less than half, it should be free game to be it's own. The Supreme Court NEEDS to address this and stick to it's ruling.

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