333 U.S. 127 (1948), 280, Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co.

Docket Nº:No. 280
Citation:333 U.S. 127, 68 S.Ct. 440, 92 L.Ed. 588
Party Name:Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co.
Case Date:February 16, 1948
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 127

333 U.S. 127 (1948)

68 S.Ct. 440, 92 L.Ed. 588

Funk Brothers Seed Co.

v.

Kalo Inoculant Co.

No. 280

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 16, 1948

Argued January 13, 1948

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Certain product claims of Bond Patent No. 2,200,532, on certain mixed cultures of root-nodule bacteria capable of inoculating the seeds of leguminous plants belonging to several cross-inoculation groups, held invalid for want of invention. Pp. 128-132.

2. Discovery of the fact that certain strains of each species of these bacteria can be mixed without harmful effect on the properties of either is not patentable, since it is no more than the discovery of a phenomenon of nature. P. 131.

3. The application of this newly discovered natural principle to the problem of packaging inoculants was not invention or discovery within the meaning of the patent laws. Pp. 131-132.

161 F.2d 981, reversed.

In a patent infringement suit, the District Court held certain product claims invalid for want of invention. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 161 F.2d 981. This Court granted certiorari. 332 U.S. 755. Reversed, 132.

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DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a patent infringement suit brought by respondent. The charge of infringement is limited to certain product claims1 of Patent No. 2,200,532 issued to Bond on May 14, 1940. Petitioner filed a counterclaim asking for a declaratory judgment that the entire patent be adjudged invalid.2 The District Court held the product claims invalid for want of invention, and dismissed the complaint. It also dismissed the counterclaim. Both parties appealed. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the product claims were valid and infringed and that the counterclaim should not have been dismissed. 161 F.2d 981. The question of validity is the only question presented by this petition for certiorari.

Through some mysterious process, leguminous plants are able to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the plant for conversion to organic nitrogenous compounds. The ability of these plants to fix nitrogen from the air depends on the presence of bacteria of the genus Rhizobium

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which infect the roots of the plant and form nodules on them. These root nodule bacteria of the genus Rhizobium fall into at least six species. No one species will infect the roots of all species of leguminous plants. But each will infect well defined groups of those plants.3 Each species of root nodule bacteria is made up of distinct strains which vary in efficiency. Methods of selecting the strong strains and of producing a bacterial culture from them have long been known. The bacteria produced by the laboratory methods of culture are placed in a powder or liquid base and packaged for sale to and use by agriculturists in the inoculation of the seeds of leguminous plants. This also has long been well known.

It was the general practice, prior to the Bond patent, to manufacture and sell inoculants containing only one species of root nodule bacteria. The inoculant could therefore be used successfully only in plants of the particular cross-inoculation group corresponding to this species. Thus, if a farmer had crops of clover, alfalfa, and soybeans, he would have to use three separate inoculants.4 There had been a few mixed cultures for field legumes. But they had proved generally unsatisfactory because the different species of the Rhizobia bacteria produced an inhibitory effect on each other when mixed in a common base, with the result that their efficiency

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was reduced. Hence, it has been assumed that the different species were mutually inhibitive. Bond discovered that there are strains of each species of root nodule bacteria which do not exert a mutually inhibitive effect on each other. He also ascertained that those mutually noninhibitive strains can, by certain methods of selection and testing, be isolated and used in mixed cultures. Thus, he provided a mixed culture of Rhizobia capable of inoculating the seeds of plants belonging to several cross-inoculation groups. It is the product claims which disclose that mixed culture that the Circuit Court of Appeals had held valid.

We do not have presented the question whether the methods of selecting and testing the noninhibitive strains are patentable. We have here only product claims. Bond does not create state of inhibition or of noninhibition in the bacteria. Their qualities are the work of nature. Those qualities are, of course, not patentable. For patents cannot issue for the discovery of the phenomena of nature. See Le Roy v. Tatham, 14 How. 156, 175. The qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals, are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men. They are manifestations of laws of nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none. He who discovers a hitherto unknown phenomenon of nature has no claim to a monopoly of it which the law recognizes. If there is to be invention from such a discovery, it must come from the application of the law of nature to a new and useful end. See Telephone Cases, 126 U.S. 1, 532-533; De Forest Radio Co. v. General Electric Co., 283 U.S. 664, 684-685; Mackay Radio & Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp., 306 U.S. 86, 94; Cameron Septic Tank Co. v. Saratoga Springs, 159 F. 453, 462, 463. The Circuit Court of Appeals thought that Bond did much more than discover a law of nature, since he made an new and different composition of noninhibitive

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strains which contributed utility and economy to the manufacture and distribution of commercial inoculants. But we think that that aggregation of species fell short of invention within the meaning of the patent statutes.

[68 S.Ct. 442] Discovery of the fact that certain strains of each species of these bacteria can be mixed without harmful effect to the properties of either is a discovery of their qualities of noninhibition. It is no more than the discovery of some of the handiwork of nature, and hence is not patentable. The aggregation of select strains of the several species into one product is an application of that newly discovered natural principle. But however ingenious the discovery of that natural principle may have been, the application of it is hardly more than an advance in the packaging of the inoculants. Each of the species of root nodule bacteria contained in the package infects the same group of leguminous plants which it always infected. No species acquires a different use. The combination of species produces no new bacteria, no change in the six species of bacteria, and no enlargement of the range of their utility. Each species has the same effect it always had. The bacteria perform in their natural way. Their use in combination does not improve in any way their natural functioning. They serve the ends nature originally provided, and act quite independently of any effort of the patentee.

There is, of course, an advantage in the combination. The farmer need not buy six different packages for six different crops. He can buy one package and use it for any or all of his crops of leguminous plants. And, as respondent says, the packages of mixed inoculants also hold advantages for the dealers and manufacturers by reducing inventory problems and the like. But a product must be more than new and useful to be patented; it must also satisfy the requirements of invention or discovery.

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Cuno Engineering Corp. v. Automatic Devices Corp., 314 U.S. 84, 90-91, and cases cited; 35 U.S.C. § 31. R.S. 4886. The application of this newly discovered natural principle to the problem of packaging of inoculants may well have been an important commercial advance. But once nature's secret of the noninhibitive quality of certain strains of the species of Rhizobium was discovered, the state of the art made the production of a mixed inoculant a simple step. Even though it may have been the product of skill, it certainly was not the product of invention. There is no way in which we could call it such unless we borrowed invention from the discovery of the natural principle itself. That is to say, there is no invention here unless the discovery that certain strains of the several species of these bacteria are noninhibitive, and may thus be safely mixed, is invention. But we cannot so hold without allowing a patent to issue on one of the ancient secrets of nature now disclosed. All that remains, therefore, are advantages of the mixed inoculants themselves. They are not enough.

Since we conclude that the product claims do not disclose an invention or discovery within the meaning of the patent statutes, we do not consider whether the other statutory...

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