The ruling is a major victory for Missouri-headquartered Monsanto Co. and its Roundup Ready soybeans, and affirms an earlier ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, which deals with intellectual property issues.
Roundup Ready soybeans contain a genetic alteration that allows them to survive exposure to the herbicide glyphosate. Monsanto sells the seeds under a licensing agreement that permits farmers "to plant the purchased seed in one, and only one, growing season," Justice Elena Kagan said in her unanimous opinion.
Farmers may consume or sell the resulting crops, but may not save any of the harvested soybeans for replanting.
A Montana farmer bought the seed for his first crop of each soybean season from a company assoicated with Monsanto.
"But to reduce costs for his riskier late-season planting, [the farmer] purchased soybeans intended for consumption from a grain elevator; planted them; treated the plants with glyphosate, killing all plants without the Roundup Ready trait; harvested the resulting soybeans that contained that trait; and saved some of these harvested seeds to use in his late-season planting the next season."
Monsanto sued, and the farmer argued that the doctrine of "patent exhaustion," which gives the purchaser of a patented article, or any subsequent owner, the right to use or resell that article. The lower courts rejected that defense.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, holding that patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.