by John Andren*
After much noise and debate over genetically-enhanced crops and agribusiness leading up to the arguments in Bowman v. Monsanto, the swiftness with which the Supreme Court delivered its concise, unanimous decision might have left some wondering what all the hype was about. And indeed, it turns out there wasn’t much beyond the noise. The Court didn’t lend much credence to Bowman’s “blame-the-bean” defense, and affirmed its own precedent and the patent exhaustion doctrine as it has been understood for years. Pretty much exactly what WLF and most experienced observers had expected of the case.
It is worth applauding the Court, however, for deciding the case solely on its legal merits instead of turning the case into a referendum on so-called GMOs and the companies which create them, as some activist legal groups had attempted to goad them into doing.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS), for instance, dedicated a large portion of its brief to detailing what it saw as the dangers of GMOs and the tactics with which Monsanto dared to enforce their property rights against farmers who used their product without paying for it. But these are issues for Congress or for a separate suit if indeed Monsanto did anything beyond reason in enforcing their rights, which it didn’t.
Bowman, himself a fan of Monsanto’s products and how “simpler and better” they made everything, thought he had found a loophole to actually having to pay for his preferred seed and tried to take advantage of it. He was wrong, however, and had unlawfully reproduced a patented product and was thus liable for damages to Monsanto. That doesn’t sound like Bowman’s experience serves as “a microcosm of [a] systematic problem” of agribusiness abusing farmers, as the CFS claimed, nor is it indicative of any distrust or dislike of GMOs by farmers (Bowman has been photographed wearing a Monsanto hat). It sounds like an entrepreneurial farmer who realized a great thing, Monsanto’s seeds — would be even greater if they were free.
This was not a dispute about GMOs or supposed entrapment, but a simple case asking the legal question of whether a purchaser of a patented seed may plant and reproduce those seeds without permission from the patent holder. As the Court rightly said: “No, they may not.” The implications of the Court invalidating intellectual property rights on any grounds other than sound legal reasoning would have had devastating effects and we applaud the Court for deciding this case not only for the right party but in the right manner.
*John Andren is an intern with Washington Legal Foundation’s Legal Studies Division who graduated from George Mason University with an economics degree and will be attending Georgetown Law in the fall.