Bowman v. Monsanto Case: U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Bowman v. Monsanto, a case that highlights the crucial role that patent protection plays in fostering and protecting U.S. innovation across a broad range of industries — including agriculture, medicine, computer software and environmental science — that deliver benefits to millions of Americans.

Monsanto’s arguments to the Court underscored the role that patent rights play in enabling innovation in biotechnology and other fields where breakthrough discoveries require substantial R&D investments that depend upon the protections afforded under U.S. patent law.

“Today’s case highlights the importance of intellectual property protection in supporting America’s continued investments in breakthrough 21st century technologies that support the increasing demands of our planet and our people,” said David Snively, Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Monsanto. “We are confident the Court will give thoughtful consideration to the arguments expressed today. America’s leadership in fostering the incentive to invest in research and development has created the world’s leading innovation economy, with millions of high-technology jobs — not just in our field of agriculture, but in other R&D-intensive fields like medicine, biotechnology, computer science and environmental science.”

A number of independent organizations and individuals filed amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold the lower courts’ rulings in favor of Monsanto. This broad group included leading universities and research institutions; national farm groups representing virtually all of the nation’s corn, soybean, sugar and wheat growers; biotechnology companies; professors of economics and intellectual property; and representatives of the computer software industry. The briefs from the farm organizations highlighted the importance of patent protection in supporting agricultural innovation, which continues to bring about higher-yielding crops that are better equipped to withstand increased environmental stresses.

Organizations that supported a ruling that protects and preserves intellectual property included: the American Soybean Association, the American Seed Trade Association, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a coalition of leading universities (including the University of California, Duke University, Emory University, the University of Illinois, Iowa State, the University of Kansas, Kansas State, the University of Missouri-Columbia, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and other university organizations such as the Association of American Universities, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities), the Intellectual Property Owners Association, the Washington Legal Foundation, and the Business Software Alliance (whose members include Apple and Microsoft).

The case concerns the unauthorized reproduction of Monsanto’s genetically improved soybeans, which contain patented biotechnology that allows weed control by protecting crops during use of the world’s leading herbicide, glyphosate. The soybeans are extraordinarily popular with growers nationwide, because Monsanto’s technology enables growers to apply herbicide after their crops and weeds have emerged, controlling the weeds without harming the soybean plants.

When first introduced in 1996, this novel approach marked a significant improvement from prior herbicide and tillage systems and has been shown to reduce soil erosion by enabling and encouraging conservation tillage. The petitioner in this case (Bowman) challenged the enforceability of Monsanto’s patent rights after taking the unconventional step of buying soybeans containing the patented technology from a local grain elevator and, from 1999 to 2007, repeatedly planting, cultivating and harvesting them to create his own supply of soybeans containing the technology. The patents in the technology expire in 2014.

In the agriculture sector alone, Monsanto and its competitors are investing billions of dollars annually on R&D in agricultural advancements, and pursuing novel approaches through plant breeding and plant biotechnology to make crops higher yielding and more resistant to various environmental stresses.

Interested parties can access more information about the case, its history, Monsanto’s brief, and the U.S. government’s brief online here.

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