Replication without Human Intervention: Lessons from Monsanto v. Bowman
Until now, the practicing of an invention needed some direct form of human action; someone was needed to “do something” to bring the invention into existence, as well as replicate it by making more (in the case of a physical object) or performing it again (in the case of a method). However, this may no longer be necessary in all instances. At least in the case of some biological technologies, once an invention has been created by a human, further human intervention may no longer be needed for replicating the invention. In these instances, does a patent owner lose the right to exclude future uses, sales, offers for sale or importations of such an invention?
In Monsanto v. Bowman, the Supreme Court is poised to bring some clarity to this question. Monsanto Company designs and manufactures herbicide-resistant soybean seeds and related technology. Monsanto sold patented seeds to farmers for growing and resale as commodity items to be used in such things as public-school lunches and animal feed. Such sales were made under license agreements that allowed the beans to be sold without any ongoing restrictions on the use of those beans.
Vernon Bowman is a soybean farmer. Bowman purchased these beans and replanted them as second-generation seeds, which were the products of seeds purchased from a licensed Monsanto technology distributor.
Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement, arguing that the beans were products of Monsanto’s patented herbicide-resistant seeds and that, by planting them instead of purchasing new seeds, Bowman violated the Monsanto Technology Agreement for the seeds. The U.S. District Court found that Bowman’s activities infringed upon Monsanto’s patent and awarded damages to Monsanto for violation of its patented technology. The Federal Circuit agreed and upheld the decision, holding that Monsanto’s patent covered both the original seeds and a product of the original seeds, such as those second-generation beans grown by Bowman.
Bowman appealed, arguing that, under the doctrine of patent exhaustion, Monsanto’s patent rights were exhausted upon its initial sale of the seeds that Bowman later purchased from the licensed distributor, and that use of progeny seeds is an expected use of the product. In response, Monsanto argued that in the case of self-replicating technologies, such as seeds that grow and produce more seeds, the patent extends to the underlying technology (i.e., herbicide resistance) and not only to the seed itself.
The important question raised in this case is whether an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies is needed and/or warranted. While this question is clearly important to the biotechnology and agricultural industries, it also has the potential to significantly affect the software and robotics industries. For example, as robotics and artificial intelligence become increasingly sophisticated in their abilities to adapt and “grow,” it does not seem too outlandish to think that, one day, these may also become self-replicating technologies.