On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Kimble v. Marvel, also known as the Spider-Man case. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan held that patent holders may not collect royalties on a patent after it expires. The case dealt with a toy that shoots out fake webs, à la Spider-Man. Kagan, a huge fan of comic books, decided to have some fun with the topic, weaving Spider-Man references throughout her opinion. (The justice famously has a great sense of humor, once citing Dr. Seuss in a dissent.) After noting that the toy is designed for “children (and young-at-heart adults),” Kagan delivers of series of jokes that enliven the dry case:
- 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.
Impressively, Kagan actually uses humor to further her point. One party to the case asked the court to overrule a longstanding precedent. But Kagan refused, instead abiding by stare decisis—a principle that the court should follow its own precedents.
- [T]he decision’s close relation to a whole web of precedents means that reversing it could threaten others.
- As against this superpowered form of stare decisis, we would need a superspecial justification to warrant reversing [an old decision].
Then Kagan actually references the Spider-Man comic books:
- 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”).
A comic book fanatic colleague of mine—who insisted I not use his name in this piece—lauds Kagan for correctly citing to Amazing Fantasy, the name of the issue that introduced Spider-Man. However, he notes that she did make one error: The story in that issue introduced a character named Spider-Man!, with an exclamation mark which Kagan omits. The authors of the Bluebook would be disappointed.