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Supreme Court quotes Spider-Man comic in patent ruling

Just because they're writing about patent law doesn't mean the Supreme Court Justices can't have a little fun.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a toy inventor who was seeking royalties from Marvel Entertainment for his "web blaster" design, even though his patent had expired.

"Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority in a ruling complete with quotes from the Spider-Man comic books and theme song.

The ruling rested on the concept of "stare decisis," which dictates that courts must follow precedents set by previous rulings. In the 1964 case Brulotte v. Thys Co., the Supreme Court held that a patentee cannot keep receiving royalties for sales made after his patent expires.

That principle apparently reminded Kagan of a well-known line from the Spider-Man comics.

"Stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly," the ruling says. "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')."

Kagan also referenced the Spider-Man theme song to explain how the case came about in the first place.

Inventor Stephen Kimble had a deal with Marvel Entertainment's corporate predecessor for the sales of a toy the company called the "web blaster," which Kimble had patented. The toy allows the user to shoot webs (or pressurized foam string) from the palm of his or her hands. The company purchased Kimble's patent in exchange for a lump sum plus 3 percent royalty in future sales.

"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)," Kagan wrote.

Then, however, Marvel discovered the Brulotte case and realized that it could stop paying Kimble after his 20-year patent expired. The court agreed.

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