By Dennis Crouch
Organic Seed Growers and Trade Ass’n v. Monsanto Company (Fed. Cir. 2013)
In 2011, Dan Ravicher at PubPat led a group of 23 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Monsanto seeking declaratory judgment of non-infringement and invalidity of Monsanto’s genetically modified seed patents. Although not directly related, the patents challenged here are the same as those that Monsanto has asserted against dozens of farmers for growing unlicensed versions of its Round-Up Ready Soybeans. See, e.g., Bowman v. Monsanto (2013). In the present case, however, none of the plaintiffs want to grow genetically modified crops. Instead, the case asserts that the organic and heritage seed growers are in fear of becoming liable for inadvertently growing patented seeds. In many ways, patent infringement can be considered a strict liability tort and, as such, the unknowing use of another’s patented invention still creates liability for patent infringement. Thus far, Monsanto has promised that it will not sue farmers who inadvertently grow its patented crops so long as the farmers do not take advantage of their glyphosate resistant properties and so long as the farmer’s do not intentionally re-plant GM progeny. However, Monsanto has not offered any clear covenant-not-to-sue for inadvertent growing. Recent news that Monsanto’s experimentally genetically modified and non-FDA approved wheat has inadvertently spread even though Monsanto had attempted to destroy all of the crops.
The district court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction – finding that there was “no justiciable case or controversy” as required under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. On appeal, the Federal Circuit has now affirmed — holding that “appellants have not alleged any circumstances placing them beyond the scope of [Monsanto's] assurances.”
In dicta, the court spelled out the no-fair-use doctrine of patent law – writing that even trace amounts of infringing material can still constitute infringement. See SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Apotex Corp., 403 F.3d 1331 (Fed. Cir. 2005); Abbott Labs. v. Sandoz, Inc., 566 F.3d 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2009); and Embrex, Inc. v. Serv. Eng’g Corp., 216 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (Rader, J., concurring). The court also recognized that it is “likely inevitable” that conventional crops are contaminated with genetically modified crops. However, the fact that someone is likely infringing does not create declaratory judgment jurisdiction. Rather, the patentee must have taken some additional step to create some threat of enforcement and here, Monsanto has only stated that it will not sue unless the farmers take advantage of the patented seeds unique properties. The plaintiffs case here fails because they “have not made any allegations that they fall outside Monsanto’s representations.”
In sum, Monsanto’s binding representations remove any risk of suit against the appellants as users or sellers of trace amounts (less than one percent) of modified seed. The appellants have alleged no concrete plans or activities to use or sell greater than trace amounts of modified seed, and accordingly fail to show any risk of suit on that basis. The appellants therefore lack an essential element of standing. The district court correctly concluded that it lacks Declaratory Judgment Act jurisdiction.