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Kimble v. Marvel: Justice Kagan’s top Spider-Man jokes in a big patent case

30 June 2015

From Vox:

The Supreme Court settled a long-running patent case titled Kimble V. Marvel Entertainment. It was basically about patent holders and licensing fees, which isn’t that fun, but Justice Elena Kagan wrote the court’s opinion on the case, which was fun — mainly because she filled it with Spider-Man jokes.

Kagan, a self-avowed “avid comic book fan” managed to slip in lyrics from the 1970s Spider-Man cartoon theme song in the court’s written opinion, as well as the classic line “with great power comes great responsibility” — referring specifically to the court’s power to overturn legal precedent, and their responsibility not to do so without a compelling reason. In this case, Stephen Kimble — who created the mechanism that Marvel used to create the super-popular Web Shooter toys, which were gloves that fired silly string — wasn’t able to convince the court that he was owed royalties by Marvel after his patent expired.

. . . .

Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment poses a serious legal and policy question about the ability of patent holders to extract license fees after the expiration of the underlying patent that led to the fees. But it also has to do with Spider-Man merchandise, so Justice Kagan, who wrote the opinion, apparently couldn’t restrain herself from cracking a series of comic book jokes:

  • “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.”
  • “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: “SpiderMan,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility”).”

Link to the rest at Vox and thanks to Dan for the tip.

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5 Comments to “Kimble v. Marvel: Justice Kagan’s top Spider-Man jokes in a big patent case”

  1. Yes, I have a MAJOR girl crush on Justice Kagan!

  2. Suburbanbanshee

    So, should Kagan have recused herself because she’s a Marvel fan, or is she also a DC fan and thus disinterested?

    I don’t think the decision was wrong, but the decision being written that way… well, it makes her seem biased. Amusing, but also very dismissive. I’m a Marvel zombie myself, but it doesn’t seem fair to write a legal decision in Marvel zombie mode.

    • The level of bias required for a judge to recuse themselves is very high. Much higher than just being a fan of one of the companies involved.

      Your point is well made though, the majesty of the court can suffer if there are too many shenanigans like this. Part of the court’s power is the image of sober neutrality.

      That’s what makes this so much fun. It’s a very rare bit of humor.

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