By Jason Rantanen
Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC (2015) Download Opinion
Opinion by Justice Kagan. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas.
Drawing heavily on stare decisis, the Supreme Court has declined to overrule the rule in Brulotte v. Thys that a patentee cannot continue to receive royalties for sales made after the expiration of the patent based on principles of stare decisis. However, the Court leaves open the possibility of creative license drafting. From the opinion:
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. While a patent lasts, the patentee possesses exclusive rights to the patented article—rights he may sell or license for royalty payments if he so chooses. See 35 U. S. C. §154(a)(1). But a patent typically expires 20 years from the day the application for it was filed. See §154(a)(2). And when the patent expires, the patentee’s prerogatives expire too, and the right to make or use the article, free from all restriction, passes to the public. See Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co., 376 U. S. 225, 230 (1964). This Court has carefully guarded that cut-off date, just as it has the patent laws’ subject-matter limits: In case after case, the Court has construed those laws to preclude measures that restrict free access to formerly patented, as well as unpatentable, inventions.
Brulotte was brewed in the same barrel. There, an inventor licensed his patented hop-picking machine to farmers in exchange for royalties from hop crops harvested both before and after his patents’ expiration dates. The Court (by an 8-1 vote) held the agreement unenforceable—“unlawful per se”—to the extent it provided for the payment of royalties “accru[ing] after the last of the patents incorporated into the machines had expired.” 379 U. S., at 30, 32. To arrive at that conclusion, the Court began with the statutory provision setting the length of a patent term. See id., at 30 (quoting the then-current version of §154). Emphasizing that a patented invention “become[s] public property once [that term] expires,” the Court then quoted from Scott Paper: Any attempt to limit a licensee’s post-expiration use of the invention, “whatever the legal device employed, runs counter to the policy and purpose of the patent laws.” 379 U. S., at 31 (quoting 326 U. S., at 256).
As against this superpowered form of stare decisis, we would need a superspecial justification to warrant reversing Brulotte. But the kinds of reasons we have most often held sufficient in the past do not help Kimble here. If anything, they reinforce our unwillingness to do what he asks.
Slip Op. at 3-4, 6, 10. Nonetheless, wary license drafters can work around Brulotte:
Yet parties can often find ways around Brulotte, enabling them to achieve those same ends. To start, Brulotte allows a licensee to defer payments for pre-expiration use of a patent into the post-expiration period; all the decision bars are royalties for using an invention after it has moved into the public domain. See 379 U. S., at 31; Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U. S. 100, 136 (1969). A licensee could agree, for example, to pay the licensor a sum equal to 10% of sales during the 20-yearpatent term, but to amortize that amount over 40 years.That arrangement would at least bring down early outlays, even if it would not do everything the parties might want to allocate risk over a long time frame. And parties have still more options when a licensing agreement covers either multiple patents or additional non-patent rights. Under Brulotte, royalties may run until the latest-running patent covered in the parties’ agreement expires. See 379 U. S., at 30. Too, post-expiration royalties are allowable so long as tied to a non-patent right—even when closely related to a patent. See, e.g., 3 Milgrim on Licensing §18.07, at 18–16 to 18–17. That means, for example, thata license involving both a patent and a trade secret can set a 5% royalty during the patent period (as compensation for the two combined) and a 4% royalty afterward (as payment for the trade secret alone). Finally and most broadly, Brulotte poses no bar to business arrangements other than royalties—all kinds of joint ventures, for example—that enable parties to share the risks and rewards of commercializing an invention.
Slip Op. at 6. Tom Cotter has already provided his own insightful commentary on the opinion over on ComparativePatentRemedies.
Side note: this may be the only judicial opinion ever to quote both my colleague Herb Hovenkamp and Stan Lee & Steve Ditko.