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

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")."

According to Supreme Court Review, Kagan is an "avid comic book fan" and must have been delighted to score the opportunity to write this decision. That last joke is actually the essence of the case. The Supreme Court is being asked to overturn an earlier precedent, and Kagan is saying that overturning precedents isn't something the Court should do without a very compelling reason. They have a responsibility to provide the country with a predictable, publicly understood code of laws, and that means being restrained in their use of the authority to change things up.