Asgrow Seed Company v. Winterboer

PETITIONER: Asgrow Seed Company
RESPONDENT: Winterboer et al., Dba Deebees
LOCATION: Spendthrift Farm

DOCKET NO.: 92-2038
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 513 US 179 (1995)
ARGUED: Nov 07, 1994
DECIDED: Jan 18, 1995

ADVOCATES:
Richard L. Stanley - on behalf of the Petitioner
Richard H. Seamon - on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
William H. Bode - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Asgrow Seed Company (Asgrow) held two Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) certificates protecting different varieties of soybean seed. These PVPA certificates act like patents in order to promote research on new varieties of plants and to protect the owners of seed varieties from unauthorized sales. However, there is an exemption for farmers who sell seed to other farmers whose primary occupation is growing crops for sale. In 1990, Winterboer planted and harvested 265 acres of land with two Asgrow soybean varieties. He then sold enough to plant 10,000 acres to other farmers for use as seed. Asgrow claimed that the PVPA prohibits anyone from selling for seed more than would be needed to replant his own fields - an amount greatly exceeded by Winterboer's sales. Winterboer argued that the exemptions in the statute protect sales of unlimited amounts of seed as long as both seller and buyer grow crops primarily for "other than reproductive purposes." The District Court ruled in favor of Asgrow, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed and denied Asgrow's petition for rehearing.

Question

Is the quantity of protected seed that a farmer can sell under the exemptions in the Plant Variety Protection Act limited to the amount of seed the seller would need to replant his own fields?

Media for Asgrow Seed Company v. Winterboer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 07, 1994 in Asgrow Seed Company v. Winterboer

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 18, 1995 in Asgrow Seed Company v. Winterboer

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in No. 92-2038, Asgrow Seed Company against Winterboer will be announcement by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

It seems to be flight of life, Wednesday we’ve announced decisions about termite frequent flyers annuities and flee bargaining.

This one is about farming.

It comes to us on certiorari from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The petitioner is Asgrow Seed Company, company which has protected two varieties of soybean seed under the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 which protect owners of novel seed varieties from unauthorized sale of their seed for replanting purposes.

The respondent, Iowa Farmers, planted 265 acres of Asgrow’s protected soybeans and disposes the entire salable crop my making so called “brown-bag” sales of the soybeans to other farmers for use as seed, enough seed to plant about 10,000 acres.

Petitioners sued respondent in Federal District Court contending that these actions violated the Act.

Respondent sought refuge in an exemption from infringement liability found in Section 2543 of the Act which permits farmers to make some sales as seeds descended from protected variety seed to other farmers for planting purposes.

The District Court granted summary judgment for Asgrow holding that the exemptions allows a farmer to save and resale to other farmers only the amount of seed from his crop that he would need to replant his own fields.

The Court of Appeals reversed holding that the exemption permits the farmer to sell up to half of every crop he produces from protected seed varieties for planting purposes.

So, as long as he sells the other half for food or for feed we reverse that judgment.

The exemption set for us in the proviso to Section 2543 allows a farmer to sell through other farmers seed which he has cleaned and saved for planting purposes.

However, the structure of the sentence is such that this authorization does not extend to saved seed that was grown for the very purpose of selling it for planting because that would violate another provision section 2541(3).

As a practical matter this means that the only crop seed a farmer can resell for planting is that which he has saved to replant his own fields.

Thus the proviso allows a farmer who saves seeds to replant his acreage but later changes his plans to sell that seed for reproductive purposes.

It does not as the Court of Appeals held authorize farmers to engage in direct competition with the owners of the novel variety by selling virtually limitless quantities of seed to other farmers.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.