Monsanto's licensing case victory

Geoffrey Manne —  20 January 2010

As regular readers know, we’ve been following with (critical) interest the antitrust issues surrounding the seed industry in general and Monsanto in particular.  See, for example posts by me or Mike here, here and here.

As you may not know, Monsanto and Pioneer (a DuPont subsidiary) have been engaged in a heated contract and patent dispute rooted in Monsanto’s claim that Pioneer breached a patent license it obtained from Monsanto by stacking (that is, combining in one seed product) Monsanto’s Roundup Ready trait (which makes plants resistant to glyphosate herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup) with its own glyphosate-tolerant trait in some of its genetically-modified soybean and corn seeds.  Pioneer has counterclaimed, including with a number of antitrust claims.  Arguably the major impetus for the antitrust accusations swirling around Monsanto in this area is Pioneer’s fomenting of such claims, and Pioneer seems to have been “cooperating with” the DOJ in its ongoing investigation.

Although we have been most interested in the antitrust aspects of the case, Monsanto won an important victory in the underlying licensing case last week.  Article here; the court’s (Eastern District of Missouri) decision is available in pdf here.

The basic summary of the case is this (from the decision):

This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings and Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Count II of Plaintiffs’ Complaint.

* * *

Monsanto brought the present action for breach of contract, patent infringement, inducement to infringe, and unjust enrichment, alleging that Pioneer violated Monsanto’s contractual and patent rights by producing [] stacked seed products.  Pioneer counterclaims for a declaratory judgment that the license agreements permit it to stack [].  Pioneer also asserts a number of antitrust counterclaims, alleging that Monsanto has abused its patent monopolies, has inserted anticompetitive restrictions into its license agreements with seed producers, and is attempting to employ an anticompetitive “switching strategy” by using new licensing agreements to shift independent seed companies from the current RR trait seed lines to Roundup Ready 2 Yield®, in order to prevent generic entry into the market and extend Monsanto’ patent protection through 2020.

* * *

Monsanto moves for partial judgment on the pleadings that: (1) the license agreements do not permit stacking of any non-RR glyphosate-tolerant traits with Monsanto’s [RR] traits; (2) Pioneer breached those agreements by [so] stacking; and (3) it is entitled to judgment in its favor on Pioneer’s counterclaim for a declaratory judgment that the license agreements permit this type of stacking. . . . Pioneer argues that the license agreements do permit [such] stacking.

We can dispense with Pioneer’s last counterclaim off the bat:  Monsanto announced toward the end of last year that it would not force (and, it claims, never planned to force) seed companies to switch to its new Roundup Ready seeds in anticipation of the expiration of the current Roundup Ready patent in 2014:

But in its letters this week, Monsanto said it would now extend all contracts for Roundup Ready 1 until the patent’s expiration date. It also said it would not enforce language in some contracts that would have required seed companies to destroy or return Roundup Ready seed when the patent expired.

Last week’s ruling explicitly did not reach Pioneer’s antitrust claims which are still alive.

But the ruling did support Monsanto in its basic case which centers around the field-of-use restriction described above.  And on this issue the court found in Monsanto’s favor, holding that the license did indeed contain a valid restriction against stacking of glyphosate-tolerant traits and that Monsanto may seek a remedy for violation of the restriction (if the agreements and patents are deemed enforceable, an issue not reached by the court’s decision) in contract.

The ruling is narrow in scope, but it’s an important victory for Monsanto in what is, at its core, a patent infringement/breach of contract case–not an antitrust case.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion, laid out on Monsanto’s web page here, that Pioneer resorted to stacking in an effort not to improve through synergy the overall glyphosate tolerance of its seeds but rather to patch over the relative  ineffectiveness of its own traits.  Monsanto has licensed its technology widely for use in products where its trait is combined with different traits from other companies (including, notably, competitors like Pioneer).  But for very good reasons (mainly protection of its brand), Monsanto imposes field of use restrictions on the coupling of its Roundup Ready trait with other companies’ traits that purport to perform the same function.  The court’s decision paves the way for Monsanto to thus enforce its property rights.  That this sensible restriction also forms the basis of Pioneer’s and others’ allegations of anticompetitive conduct is regrettable, and I hope the court and the DOJ are mindful of the error cost risks inherent in this kind of claim.

At the same time the ruling makes the underlying case harder for Pioneer and thus makes Pioneer’s antitrust counterlcaims more important to its ability to prevail.  I guess that means more fomenting of antitrust animosity against Monsanto is probably in the cards.

Geoffrey Manne

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