A billboard promoting Monsanto in Champaign, Ill. Credit: Pam G. Dempsey / Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Vernon Bowman’s challenge to Monsanto Co.’s patent on its Roundup Ready soybean seeds was billed as a David v. Goliath contest. Goliath won and won big.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that Bowman, a 75-year-old soybeans farmer from southern Indiana, had violated Monsanto’s patent on its genetically engineered soybean seeds. Bowman had used commodity seeds he bought from a local grain elevator to make new seeds with Roundup Ready traits.

Justice Elena Kagan said that Monsanto would get “scant benefit” for its invention if farmers like Bowman could use seeds from grain elevators to make new seeds with Roundup Ready properties. Farmers would “need only buy the seed once” and could multiply the seeds “ad infinitum — each time profiting from the patented seed without compensating its inventor….

“If simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention,” she wrote.

In Monsanto’s news release, David F. Snively, executive vice president, said the decision “ensures that longstanding principles of patent law apply to breakthrough 21st-century technologies that are central to meeting the growing demands of our planet and its people. The ruling also provides assurance to all inventors throughout the public and private sectors that they can and should continue to investing in innovation that feeds people, improves lives, creates jobs and allows America to keep its competitive edge.”

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