By Shubha Ghosh
Without any surprise, even to those who wrote amici in support of the farmer in Bowman v. Monsanto, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto last week. During oral arguments in February, the Court made it clear that it would find against Bowman because he had made an unauthorized copy of Monsanto’s patented seed. Since oral argument, the focus has been on how the Court would rule in favor of Monsanto. The final ruling, while narrow in its language, is a potentially confusing one. In this post, I write about the implications of Bowman for the future.
Towards the end of her opinion for a unanimous court, Justice Kagan states that the ruling applies only to the facts at hand. The Court leaves open how the exhaustion doctrine applies to other self-replicating technologies. As a co-author of an amicus for the American Antitrust Institute on behalf of Bowman, I was relieved to read Justice Kagan’s rejection of the broad exception to the exhaustion doctrine for self-replicating technologies adopted by the Federal Circuit. Such a broad holding would mean that first sale and other applications of exhaustion would have no place in biotechnology or digital technologies. Contrary to the Federal Circuit, and citing treatment of software under copyright, the Court acknowledges that patent rights may not extend to necessary, but incidental copying, or to situations where copying occurs outside the control of the purchaser. Similar limitations may exist for making under patent law in the exhaustion doctrine.
What is more troubling, and somewhat confusing, is the Court’s treatment of making under the patent act. Bowman’s act of infringement was simply the act of planting the seed for another generation. This broad construal of infringement expands the scope of patent infringement to include the sort of incidental infringement that the Court acknowledges as possibly protected by exhaustion. During oral argument, the Court asked Monsanto’s counsel about inadvertent infringement, but there was no engagement. Whether inadvertent or not, it appears from the Court’s decision is that planting by itself is infringement. That conclusion is inconsistent with precedent and with previous cases.
The Court cites its 1962 decision, Wilbur-Ellis Co. v. Kuther, for the proposition that a purchaser cannot make another version of the patented item under the exhaustion doctrine. However, the Court did not mention that Kuther involved a situation in which the purchaser was not found liable for patent infringement. Specifically, the purchaser retrofitted a patented sardine-canning machine so that it could handle larger sizes of cans. Although the patent owner claimed this retrofitting to be an unauthorized reconstruction of the patented machine, the Court held that in adjusting and putting together the unpatented parts the purchaser was engaging in authorized repair.
Bowman argued that by planting the seed, he was harnessing the unpatented reproductive capacity of the seed. The Court dismissed this argument as the “blame the bean defense.” Admittedly, the argument might mean a broad exhaustion doctrine for self-replicating technologies, a conclusion that is equally troubling as the Federal Circuit’s broad exemption from exhaustion for such technologies. But the Court dismissed this argument too quickly. By concluding that planting is by its very nature reconstruction, the Court ignores the unpatented natural processes that are embodied in the act of planting. The use of the unpatented natural processes is discounted completely. In ruling against Bowman, the Court relied on a precedent that in some of its elements favored the purchaser.
The Court also relied on its 1882 decision, Cotton-Tie Company v. Simmons. In this case, the patentee distributed its patented tie for bundles for free with the cotton bales it sold under the express licensing term that the ties be used only once. The defendant collected the used ties and reconstructed them. The Court held that the defendant infringed the patent. The facts of Bowman are similar to that of Simmons. Both bought used versions of the patented product and reused them. But there are key differences. The Court’s finding of infringement in Simmons rested on a clear application of the claims of the patent which covered precisely the reconstruction of the patented ties. In Bowman, however, the Court relies on a dictionary definition of the work make to conclude that since the patented gene was part of the next generation of seeds grown by Bowman, the farmer had made the patented invention. The Court does not consult the language of the claims. Instead the Court concludes that planting is making and, under the Patent Act, any making is an infringement.
But the Bowman Court seems to be confused on when exactly making is infringement. In footnote 3, the Court considers the hypothetical of a farmer buying the patented seeds from Monsanto without an express licensing term that allowed the farmer to plant the seeds. The Court says that in such a scenario, the farmer would have an implied license to plant the seed once. But if planting is infringement, from where does this implied license arise? The Court seems to be saying that the implied license is inherent to the transaction. Why else would a sane farmer buy the seed from Monsanto except to plant?, the Court implicitly asks. The Court, of course, gives an answer to this question when it acknowledges that there are uses of the seed that would be protected from infringement under patent exhaustion: as feed for livestock or even for personal consumption. The Court’s hypothetical raises the question of when the license to plant is implied and when it is not. This confusion raises the question of the legal basis for determining when a planting of a seed is a making of the patented gene.
The Court’s legal basis ultimately rests in policy. It states that its concern is with the unlimited reproduction of the patented gene which would prevent Monsanto from developing a meaningful business model for the distribution of its seed after the first sale. But exhaustion does not remove all remedies for patent owners. Breach of contractual restrictions can give rise to contract remedies, ones that may be less draconian than a patent injunction or treble damages. During oral arguments, the Court characterized this argument as having contract substitute for patent. That is a mischaracterization. Contract remedies can supplement patent remedies, particularly in cases of exhaustion. Contract remedies do not eviscerate a patent, and they do not serve as a poor substitute for a patent. Instead, contract remedies in the case of exhaustion serve to balance the rights of patent owners with those of consumers, business people, and inventors that make use of patented articles. The Court affirmed this notion in footnote 7 of its 2008 Quanta decision, which remains good law after Bowman.
What is the most revealing about the Court’s opinion is its frequent reference to the “patent monopoly.” When I first read that phrase, which appears four times in a ten page opinion, I kept thinking of the bad old days of Justice Douglas, who viewed patents as inherently anti-competitive. The Court in Bowman, however, uses the term of patent monopoly to refer to the patentee’s exclusive rights in the specific patented article that is sold. According to the Court, the monopoly in that particular article is broad and is compromised if unauthorized making is allowed. The Court sees that threat in Bowman. Unfortunately, in reaching its decision the Court based its decision almost exclusively on the interests of the patent monopolist without thorough consideration of its own precedent, the analysis of the underlying unpatented natural processes, and the relationship among planting, making, and implied license. With the patent at issue about to expire, perhaps the impact of the decision is minimal. However, with the next generation of Round Up Ready and genetically modified seed currently under review in the USPTO, the impact of the decision will undoubtedly be felt by the next generation of inventions and users.
Shubha Ghosh is The Vilas Research Fellow & Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School.