The Copyright Infringement Case of Bowman v. Monsanto Co.

Legality regarding copyright infringement can get a little complicated if you’re not familiar with the regulations, but then again most of us don’t need to concern ourselves with those details. The only people who do are those who rely on copyright or trademarking to protect their own products or brands from people who may purposely or accidentally use them. The case of Bowman v. Monsanto was complex, but not too complex that the ruling didn’t make sense.

In the case, Monsanto alleged that Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman purchased soybean crop seeds which he planted and then replanted after the first harvest. According to Monsanto, the product was sold not as a seed but as a commodity. Bowman had no license to plant the product as a seed, which was under copyright. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, agreeing that Bowman had committed copyright infringement.

The ruling favored the owner of a patented seed by explaining that someone–such as a farmer–can use patented seeds without permission. This might seem obvious, but to farmers it isn’t. Say for example some patented seeds from a neighboring farm spread to your property and start growing. Are you liable for copyright infringement if you then use those seeds to farm on your own land? The ruling says that you are.

Another more complicated situation can develop as well. You may have the patent owner’s permission to use or grow a specific seed, but if that seed or the resulting crop is then modified or engineered to create a new strain for harvest, are you still subject to copyright infringement laws for growing the newer crop? The ruling once again says that you are.

This case was noteworthy for two other reasons: first, the ruling had the potential to force changes in regulatory policy regarding copyright and trademark infringement laws, and to the way farmers conducted business. Second, Justice Clarence Thomas was once a lawyer for Monsanto, raising concerns that his might be a biased opinion. It turned out not to make a difference, since Monsanto won in a unanimous ruling.

At the end of the day, the ruling means this: you can’t take someone else’s copyrighted product, use it to make a somewhat newer product, and claim the newer version as your own. Licensing matters regardless of where you conduct business, whether it be an Indiana or Atlanta. Credit must be due to the original maker, and you’ll be subject to copyright infringement laws if you steal this credit–because the Supreme Court says so.

Here is a video going into some more detail about the case:

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