(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions
expressed are his own.)
By Reynolds Holding
NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The U.S. Supreme
Court's hefty docket of intellectual property lawsuits is
patently logical. The justices are reviewing fewer total cases
but more involving IP. That makes sense. Patent law is badly
muddled, as next week's oral argument on rights to altered
soybean seeds is likely to demonstrate.
The case involves seeds that Monsanto genetically modified
to withstand weed killer. They were sold on the condition that
farmers would grow a single crop and not plant any harvested
seeds. But one farmer exploited a loophole to raise a second
crop, arguing that, like any patent holder, the agriculture
giant couldn't block the resale of a patented product. Two
courts backed Monsanto, however, and the Supreme Court agreed to
hear the case.
Confusion over a company's patent rights is distressingly
common. Many software patents, for instance, are so broad and
fuzzy that it's hard to tell exactly what they cover. That
provokes overlapping claims to some of high tech's most valuable
ideas — and costly litigation over smartphones and other
gadgets. The biotech industry also struggles with uncertainty
over gene patents and methods for reading blood tests.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the
nation's top patent court, is largely to blame. In 1994, for
example, it stopped requiring that patents be tied to specific
uses and allowed protections for virtually any software with a
practical purpose. The court may have been trying to promote
technological advances, but it ended up gutting the rule against
patenting abstract ideas.
The Supreme Court has started to rein in the Federal
Circuit. While the justices' total docket has shrunk — from
almost 150 cases a year two decades ago to about 75 in 2012 —
the share of intellectual property lawsuits has risen, from 2
percent in 1992 to 6 percent in 2010. Many of those suits
reversed the Federal Circuit's decisions. This term, seven of
the 76 cases before the justices involve intellectual property
Beyond fixing a lower court's mistakes, however, rulings in
those cases should promote innovation by making the law more
predictable. With the importance of patents growing, that could
be crucial for the economy's future.
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- The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 19 will hear arguments
about whether Monsanto's patent on genetically modified soybean
seeds prohibits a farmer from using them to grow crops and then
planting the harvested seeds.
- The farmer, Vernon Bowman of Indiana, argued that the
giant agriculture company only has the right to control the
first generation of seeds but not the second generation, just as
patent holders generally cannot stop the resale of a patented
product. But Monsanto says growing new plants from the harvested
seeds is like making unauthorized copies of a patented items.
Bowman is appealing a 2011 ruling in favor of Monsanto by the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
- Reuters: U.S. Supreme Court to review Monsanto seed
Unnatural law [ID:nL2E8IJESG]
That hissing sound [ID:nL1E8HD2M7]
Foggy notions [ID:nL1E8ELKGB]
- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can
click on [HOLDING/]
(Editing by Antony Currie and Martin Langfield)
Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS SUPREME/
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