Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage on Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty for FORTUNE

Justice Kagan’s nerd credibility soars

At first blush, cases about patent law probably seem pretty dull to anyone who isn’t a patent lawyer. But Justice Elena Kagan appreciated the fact that Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment offered a unique opportunity, which she took full advantage of.
 
The case itself, I’ll concede, is a little dry. USA Today published a good summary:
The justices turned thumbs down on an effort by the inventor of a Spider-Man toy to pocket royalties beyond the expiration of his patent. The wristband toy, which shoots foam string, became the basis for Marvel Enterprises’ popular Web Blaster. […]
 
In the end … a majority of justices ruled that the precedent – however flawed – should be upheld. If royalties should be allowed to accrue after a patent expires, the court said, Congress could address it.
The entirely of the ruling is online here (pdf).
 
A very small number of people are likely to actually read the decision, which is a shame in a way because Kagan, a comics fan, went out of her way to include quite a few not-so-subtle Spider-Man references in the opinion.
 
Page 2:  ”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).”
 
Page 3: “Patents endow their holders with certain superpowers, but only for a limited time.”
 
Page 11: “To the contrary, the decision’s close relation to a whole web of precedents means that reversing it could threaten others.”
 
Page 18: “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’).”
 
If readers saw any others that I missed, please let us know in the comments section.
 
Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias added, “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.”
 

Elena Kagan, Pop Culture and Supreme Court

Justice Kagan's nerd credibility soars