Justice Elena Kagan drops Spider-Man references throughout Kimble v. Marvel opinion


Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan speaks in Washington. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Justice Elena Kagan’s spider-senses were tingling.

The self-avowed comic book fan used geek chic to cut through a web of patent confusion while delivering the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion on the Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment case Monday.

Thanks to the decision, Marvel won’t need to pay out any more royalties to Stephen Kimble, the man behind the Web Blaster Spider-Man toy.

In delivering the opinion, Kagan, a New York native, couldn’t help but riddle her text with a slew of amazing references to Peter Parker, the well-known fictional hometown hero at the heart of the case.

On the second page of the decision, which Kagan authored for the majority, she secured her nerd cred by alluding to the opening lyrics from the 1967 cartoon TV show “Spider-Man.”

“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).”

Shortly after, she dropped a subtle reference to the “superpowers” that patents bestow upon their owners.

“Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time. In crafting the patent laws, Congress struck a balance between fostering innovation and ensuring public access to discoveries.”


Spider-Man has long been one of Marvel Entertainment’s most popular characters. (Photo: Marvel via Comic Vine)

Kagan also included the most frequently quoted line from the Spider-Man universe, which emphasizes its central theme of responsibility and is widely associated with the protagonist’s Uncle Ben.

“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’).”

Fanboys online were characteristically delighted to see geek culture reaching the upper echelons of the judicial branch.

Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment dates back far enough that it’s nearly worthy of its own comic book story arc.

Back in 1990, Kimble patented a new toy that mimics the superhero’s web-shooters. He filed a lawsuit against Marvel for patent infringement after the company started to produce a similar product.

They came to an agreement in 2001 that would give Kimble a lump sum of about a half-million dollars and 3 percent of the sales revenue from the Web Blaster and similar toys.

But Marvel handed the rights to produce the toy over to Hasbro in 2006 — causing the whole controversy to swing back into action.

Marvel invoked a Supreme Court decision from 1964 (Brulotte v. Thys Co.) that says patent holders cannot collect royalties once a patent expires.

In this case, Kagan explained, the court was presented with the question as to whether it would overrule Brulotte. But the doctrine of stare decisis compels the court to stand by previous rulings.

“Adhering to principles of stare decisis, we decline to do so. Critics of the Brulotte rule must seek relief not from this Court but from Congress,” Kagan said.

President Obama nominated Kagan to the bench in May 2010.