It appears at least one Supreme Court justice was having fun while writing the 29-page opinion in the case of Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc. The case was a win for Marvel and a loss for Stephen Kimble, who in 1990 patented the web blaster, based on Spider-Man’s iconic web shooter.
Marvel eventually bought licensing rights to the toy and gave Kimble three percent of toy sales, which totaled $6 million until 2010, when Marvel stopped paying him because the patent had expired. Kimble sued, arguing that the Supreme Court should overturn the 1964 ruling of Brulotte v. Thys Co. The decision said that paying royalties after a patent expired would in effect wrongfully extend its life. Kimble argued the decision was outdated and based on wrongful assumptions about the markets.
His argument wasn’t enough to convince the Supreme Court judges, who ruled 6-3 in favour of Marvel. Justice Elana Kagan wrote the decision and said in short, the court stuck by stare decisis, the legal term meaning abiding by precedents set in previous cases. The decision said there was no “special justification” to overturn the Brulotte v. Thys Co ruling.
But aside from the decision, the opinion was also notable for its references to Spider-Man. In describing the reasons for the ruling, Kagan referenced the most iconic Spider-Man line by saying “In this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility.” It references the classic line from The Amazing Spider-Man #15, written by Stan Lee himself.
She also wrote that patents give their owners “certain superpowers” for a limited time, and then referred to “a web of precedents” that informed the case.
The Brulotte case is a highly controversial ruling among economists and experts in antitrust cases, who argue, like Kimble, that the ruling was based on outdated assumptions about the competitive market.