Supreme Court Rules in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc.

Supreme CourtWhile folks had their eyes on the possibility of Marvel going before the Supreme Court over the rights of Jack Kirby, another case actually did make its way before the highest court in the land. Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc. was argued before SCOTUS on March 31, 2015, and today the court came down with their decision.

The court case was pretty simple. Marvel in the past purchased Stephen Kimble’s patent for a Spider-Man webshooter toy for a lump sum plus 3% royalty on future sales. There was no end date for the royalties. The patent Kimble had ended after 20 years. Marvel then discovered a case, Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U. S. 29, in which the Supreme Court held that a patentee cannot continue to receive royalties for sales made after his patent expires. In other words, Marvel was paying Kimble, when they didn’t need to. Marvel then went to court to confirm they could stop paying and eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court. Kimble wanted the Brulotte ruling overruled so he could continue to receive payments.

marvel featuredThe question was whether the Supreme Court should overrule the rather old decision, and they were encourage to overrule that precedent due to economic reasons.

The court decided in Marvel’s favor 6-3 with Justice Kagan writing the opinion for the Court. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts dissented. The court declared stare decisis, that they should stand by yesterday’s decision, but also said they can revisit the decision in the future.

Quickly reading over the majority opinion, the decision was that even though some deals might not go through, you can still make a deal that can favor the patent holder getting around this ruling.

We’ll be examining the decision further, and update this post as the decision is parsed out and made clearer.

You can read the decision here, and find out the whole history via SCOTUS Blog.

The best part, Kagan in her opinion quotes Spider-Man:

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”). Finding many reasons for staying the stare decisis course and no “special justification” for departing from it, we decline Kimble’s invitation to overrule Brulotte.

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

And that’s not the only comic reference by Justice Kagan. She also wrote:

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).

Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time.

To the contrary, the decision’s close relation to a whole web of precedents means that reversing it could threaten others.

It has also been pointed out that Justice Kagan is a fan of comic books, and comic book movies. That little factoid was included in her bio for the Supreme Court Review. Maybe Kagan variant covers will become the next big thing in comics, like President Obama was at one point.