If you are a child during the holiday season, there may be no better gift than a brand new Spider-Man toy. However, it appears that a trademark lawsuit may keep some Marvel merchandise off the shelves. A man named Stephen Kimble invented a toy glove that fires silly string, allowing kids to pretend they are the web-slinging hero Spider-Man. Marvel bought the idea and had been paying Kimble royalties from sales, until his patent on the idea ran out. Furious, the inventor filed a lawsuit to overturn a 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling about expiring patents, seemingly forcing Spider-Man to trade in his red-and-blue spandex for a suit and tie.
In 1964, Brulotte v. Thys Co re-affirmed the power of patented ideas and trademarks, although made no decision on expiration. The Supreme Court decided that holding a patent for an extended period of time was enough for the inventor, and that it was sensible for the “power” of the patent to eventually run out. Stephen Kimble disagrees, and feels that he should always be entitled to any profits a company is making off his idea. The true issue lies with the sale of the patent vs the expiring of the licensed patent. The Justice Department had originally suggested that this case not reach the Supreme Court, however Kimble was not offered a reasonable resolution.
It seems strange that a company like Marvel, who has been making money hand-over-fist due to the recent success of the Avengers movie franchise, would dispute royalties on toys. Still, both sides have a fair argument. Marvel was happy to pay the royalties for Kimble’s idea until they no longer had to (by law). With a settlement unlikely, the Supreme Court will be debating children’s toys sooner rather than later. I have a strange feeling that the case will get a lot of coverage in the Daily Bugle, specifically from a quirky young man named Peter Parker.