The Supreme Court of the United States, in a 6-3 decision, left undisturbed the rule from its 51-year-old decision in Brulotte v. Thys Co. (1964), invoking stare decisis and rejecting arguments seeking to overturn the rule barring patent royalty agreements that obligate payment of post-patent expiration royalties. Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, Case No. 13-720 (Supr. Ct., June 22, 2015) (Kagan, Justice) (Alito, Justice dissenting). In Kimble, the Court addressed the question of whether parties to a patent license may agree that a licensee must continue paying royalties based on sales of products after the licensed patent(s) expire, and answered the question “No,” continuing the rule that such agreements are unlawful per se.
Since Brulotte was decided 51 years ago, many courts and commentators have criticized the rule it laid down as wrongly decided as a matter of economic policy. While the Kimble decision, based essentially on stare decisis, preserves the Brulotte status quo in patent licensing, Justice Kagan has now raised the profile of this judge-made rule and related economic arguments to the branch of government that the Supreme Court concluded had the exclusive power to change it: Congress.
When the Supreme Court decided Brulotte, it prohibited the extension of the “patent monopoly” beyond the term of the patent. The Court held that “a patentee’s use of a royalty agreement that projects beyond the expiration date of the patent is unlawful per se.” In other words, once the patent expires, the invention is dedicated to the public, and the patent owner cannot continue to demand royalties for use of the patented invention after expirations of the patent term. In dicta, however, the Court distinguished impermissible payments due for use of an invention during the post-expiration period from “deferred payments for use during the pre-expiration period,” which remained permissible.
In this case, an inventor (Kimble) licensed a patent on a novelty Spider Man web-slinging toy to Marvel Entertainment. The parties, unaware of Brulotte at the time of licensing, agreed to a license whereby Marvel would pay Kimble an upfront sum plus a 3 percent royalty for all sales going forward. The license agreement included no fixed term. However, after Marvel learned of the Brulotte rule, it filed a declaratory judgment action, seeking a ruling that it could cease paying Kimble royalties as of the expiration of Kimble’s patent term in 2010. The district court agreed with Marvel, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. (IP Update, Vol. 16, No. 8).
In affirming the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court rejected Kimble’s arguments seeking to overturn the Brulotte rule. Kimble argued that the economic rationale underlying Brulotte was no longer correct, and that prohibiting post-expiration royalties made it inefficient and difficult to allocate risks and rewards, especially for patented technology that may take a significant amount of time to commercialize (such as pharmaceuticals). Marvel responded simply that [...]