2013 in Review: The top legal events, part 3

December 24, 2013

Top 20 of 2013(Editor’s note: Throughout December, we’ll be looking at the top 20 legal events of 2013, as chosen by the Legal Solutions editorial staff.)

Bowman v. Monsanto

First up this week is Bowman, a Supreme Court ruling from the previous term.

The case involved a farmer, Vernon Bowman, who purchased “Roundup Ready soybean seeds” from an affiliate of Monsanto, which invented and patented these seeds (“Roundup Ready” seeds are genetically modified to allow them to survive exposure to the herbicide “glyphosate”).

The purchase of these seeds is subject to a licensing agreement that permits farmers to plant the purchased seed in “one, and only one, growing season” – and they may consume or sell the resulting crops, but they may not save the seeds for replanting.

Bowman used these seeds in his first growing season, but to save money, he purchased seeds from a grain elevator for his second, later growing season.  Some of these seeds were Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds; Monsanto discovered this practice and sued.

SoybeansThe case made it before the Supreme Court, which unanimously sided with Monsanto, holding that, although Bowman didn’t violate the terms of the license agreement in the strictest sense (since he didn’t save and replant the harvested seeds), the Court observed that Bowman knew that most farmers who sold their beans to grain elevators used Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seed.

Because of the potentially broad implications of the Court’s finding patent infringement against a farmer planting seeds purchased from a grain elevator, it was careful to limit the scope of its ruling to the “situation before [them].”

The case is still a significant win for Monsanto and other companies who earn a significant portion of their revenue from licensing genetically engineered organisms, in that it allows them to exercise absolute control over their creation, regardless of the fact that it self-replicates without the need for human intervention.

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc

The next legal event on the list is another patent ruling from the Supreme Court.

The case is quite complex, so if you want the full scoop, you can check out this post from April.  However, here’s a quick rundown:

A group of individuals (“medical organizations, researchers, genetic counselors, and patients”) sued over the validity of a group of patents issued to Myriad Genetics that cover isolated DNA sequences.

DNA PatentThe case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled mostly in favor of the challengers.  I say “mostly” because the Court struck down Myriad’s patents on the DNA sequences that appear naturally in the human body, but upheld the patents on complimentary DNA (cDNA) because the Court found that they were not naturally occurring.

Still, the ruling striking down the DNA sequence patents is quite significant and came as something of a shock to many – since such patents had been routinely issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office up to that point.

Considering that many businesses had relied on such patents as a significant revenue stream, Molecular Pathology has turned some segments of the medical industry on their heads – though some would argue that it’s to the betterment of society at large (since related DNA testing is cheaper and more readily available).

Either way, the ruling is one of the most significant of the year.

Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons

We have yet another case from the Supreme Court on intellectual property.  Instead of patents, though, this time we have copyright.

Kirtsaeng is the case with the textbook importer: Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai national, had his family purchase textbooks in Thailand – where they were much cheaper – and ship them to the U.S.  He would then sell them for a significant profit on eBay.

The books’ publisher, John Wiley & Sons, wanted this to stop, and sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement.

The Supreme Court in WashingtonKirtsaeng argued that the “first sale” doctrine – a principle that allows the end user to sell or otherwise dispose of a legally purchased copyrighted work without permission from the copyright owner – applies to copyright-protected goods purchased abroad and imported into the United States.  John Wiley, conversely, pointed to a section of the Copyright Act that it argued classified the unauthorized importation of copyrighted material as infringement.

The Court came down in favor of Kirtsaeng six to three, finding that the first sale doctrine applies to copyright-protected material created abroad.

The case perhaps isn’t as significant for what it did as what it avoided: by ruling for Kirtsaeng, it prevented massive economic upheaval in secondary markets across the country.  After all, since the majority of products are made abroad, a ruling in favor of John Wiley may have given manufacturers unfettered control over the products they create, no matter how far down the stream of commerce that they travel.

But the Court avoided such an outcome, and Kirtsaeng stands as a ruling of common sense for the Supreme Court.

Innovation Act

The Innovation Act hasn’t actually become law yet.  However, it’s already remarkable for passing the U.S. House of Representatives on December 5 with a broad bipartisan margin of 325 to 91.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

In this era of extreme political gridlock, it’s extraordinary for any bill to pass with such strong support from both parties.

However, the potential impact of this bill, were it to become law, is even more significant.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes it, the Innovation Act is “the best patent troll-killing bill yet.”

The Act would accomplish this “troll killing” through a number of reforms, including heightened pleading requirements (requiring greater specificity), fee shifting (so that the loser in a patent case pays the winning side’s fees and costs), and the automatic staying of suits against customers when there’s a parallel suit against the manufacturer.

Although the White House has declared its support for the bill, the Senate hasn’t passed the companion version, and some intellectual property rights groups are claiming that the bill radically erodes patent rights.

The passage of the bill in the Senate is still more likely than not, but isn’t guaranteed.  Should it become law, though, it would be one of the most significant legislative reforms to patent law in years.

California’s Senate Bill 274

The unassuming name belies the impact of this law.

Enacted in October, the law modifies California’s Uniform Parentage Act to allow a child to have more than two legal parents.

I’ve written about it in more detail in this post, but here’s why a law that only affects the laws of one state (albeit the nation’s most populous) is one of the most significant legal stories of 2013:

Three parentsAs more states legalize same-sex marriage, California’s law will become a model which these states will follow.  After all, S.B. 274 came about from a case that saw the daughter of a lesbian couple (the couple was involved in a physical domestic dispute, resulting in one being hospitalized and the other being jailed) being sent to foster care because her biological father did not have parental rights.

To prevent similar outcomes in their own jurisdictions, states that recognize same-sex marriage will likely move to follow California’s example at some point in the future.

If California’s law becomes the norm for the rest of the country (which seems quite possible within 15 years’ time), one of the most basic foundations of family law – that a  child has two parents and only two parents – would have been completely rewritten.

And it would have all started in 2013 with California.