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Bowman v. Monsanto: Revisiting the Exhaustion Doctrine and its Application to Biotechnology and Digital Technologies

On February 19, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Bowman v. Monsanto – the first case to directly present the question of how the Exhaustion Doctrine should apply to patents relating to biotechnology and digital technology inventions.  The Petitioner, Vernon Hugh Bowman, asserts that the Exhaustion Doctrine should be extended to advanced agricultural technologies where the technology itself is contained in genetically modified seeds that may be reproduced through successive generations of seeds without limitation, and that companies like Monsanto can instead rely on remedies found in contract law to protect its commercial interests.  The Respondent, Monsanto Corporation, supported by the U.S. Government, (not surprisingly) disagrees, contending that an extension of the Exhaustion Doctrine of this magnitude would undercut effective patent protection for inventions that may reproduce perfectly over generations, undermining R&D in innovative technologies.  
During the Bowman v. Monsanto oral argument on February 19th, the Justices focused on the broad scope of the exception sought by the Petitioner to patent rights for GM seed as an extension of the Exhaustion Doctrine to biotechnology and digital technology inventions, and did not appear persuaded either that the only reasonable use of the soybeans by Bowman was to plant them or that right holders would find effective modes of protection through contract law.  The Justices noted that this was the first case to present the intersection of the Exhaustion Doctrine and effective protection for inventions that may be reproduced across generations – that intersection to be the issue of greatest interest to the Court in  Bowman v. Monsanto, where the Court may be unlikely to create a sweeping exception to patent rights for biotechnology or digital technology inventions that has not been contemplated by the Congress.

Full details at the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology