On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled on Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, a case looking at patent law and royalties. Kimble held the patent on a toy that would shoot “spider webs” and Marvel bought the patent while also agreeing to pay a three percent royalty on all future sales. Marvel sold the toy under Spider-Man branding as the Spider-Man Web Blaster.
However, both Kimble and Marvel were unaware of the Supreme Court decision known simply as Brulotte. Brulotte says that royalty payments can only last as long as the patent.
When Marvel discovered Brulotte, it sued for the Court to act on their agreement and overrule the agreement on the matter of the royalty payments.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marvel in a 6-3 decision.
The Court’s syllabus and Opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, include several Spidey references. Some of which are used to used to explain the Court’s thinking.
The parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can).
This is a reference to the Spider-Man theme song which sings, “Does whatever a spider can.”
Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time.
The key word is superpowers and this explains how patents grant the holder certain privileges, but they do eventually expire. This relates back to the case where Brulotte says that the payments must end when the patent does.
As against this superpowered form of stare decisis, we would need a superspecial justification to warrant reversing Brulotte.
Stare decisis is the legal principle of ruling based off precedent. Brulotte is the principle in this case and part of Kimble’s argument was that Brulotte should be overturned. However, the Court argued that there were several reasons that the precedent should remain and was in fact strong.
To the contrary, the decision’s close relation to a whole web of precedents means that reversing it could threaten others.
Kagan uses a pun with “web” to illustrate how other court cases were decided on the foundation of Brulotte and overturning that case would impact other decisions.
What we can decide, we can undecide. But stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly. Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider- Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”).
Justice Kagan wraps up her opinion by concluding her thoughts on stare decisis. She acknowledges that the Court does have the ability to overturn the case, but that does not mean they always should. She does so with arguably the most famous line in a comic book, a Spider-Man comic no less.