WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in agribusiness giant Monsanto Company's patent infringement case against Indiana soybean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman.

The Court's morning session was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.

In 2007, Monsanto sued Bowman to stop him from using and selling soybean seeds from plants that had, in turn, been grown from seeds genetically modified by Monsanto to produce plants resistant to herbicides.

Doing so allows farmers to kill neighboring weeds without harming the soybean plants.

Bowman, who is represented by New York-based Frommer Lawrence & Haug LLP, contends he legally purchased seeds at a grain elevator, which bought them from farmers who had, with Monsanto's authorization, used the genetically modified Monsanto seeds to grow their soybean crops.

Monsanto claims that Bowman infringed its patents on herbicide-resistant plants and seeds by using the grain elevator seeds to grow his soybean crops.

Bowman asserts that Monsanto's sales of the original seeds to authorized purchasers exhausted the company's patent rights and therefore it cannot enforce its patents against second-generation and later seeds that resulted from planting the original seeds.

The nation's high court accepted Bowman's case in October.

Frommer attorney Mark P. Walters was expected to argue for Bowman, along with partners Edgar H. Haug and Steven M. Amundson.

In a statement last month, Monsanto said affirming its ability to enforce its patent rights in the case is "critical" to promoting continued research in biotechnology and other key fields -- as companies, universities and research institutions rely on patent law to recoup their research and development costs, and protect against unauthorized copying of their inventions.

"The U.S. patent system has played a pivotal role in incenting innovation and spurring the advancement of many of our nation's vital industries," said David Snively, executive vice president and general counsel for Monsanto. "In this case, this system has supported the discovery and expansion of a novel science that has revolutionized agriculture, enabling growers to produce more food while they also conserve more natural resources."

He continued, "What's at stake is some of the most innovative research on the planet -- not only in agriculture, but in industries from medicine to environmental science that rely on patent systems to make R&D investments economically viable.

"If companies and universities can't count on their inventions being protected, few will continue to invest the amounts needed to create a new seed, a new medicine or another new technology."

In this case, the Supreme Court must determine how to apply a patent doctrine -- known as "patent exhaustion" -- that originated in the 19th Century to 21st Century innovations like drought- and insect-resistant crops.

These biotechnologies require hundreds of millions of dollars to develop but can be readily replicated millions of times because they consist of genetic or other easily copied material.

Both lower courts that heard the case agreed with Monsanto's position and ruled that well-settled patent law prevents the unauthorized copying of this type of invention.

"Courts have repeatedly ruled that patent law protects agricultural biotechnology, just as it protects innovations in computers, medicine and other technologies," Snively said.

"Without such protections, anyone could create a virtually limitless supply of patented technology, eviscerating the incentive to continue the R&D investments that will bring about the breakthroughs of tomorrow."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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