Holy Copyright Law, Batman! The Batmobile is a Protected Character

BatmobileThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Batmobile is a “character” protected under US copyright law.

The case involved a creator of custom cars named Mark Towle, owner of Gotham Garage. (The firm’s website focuses on “Bad Boys and Their Killer Toys.”)

Towle makes replicas of famous cars from TV shows and movies and sells them for as much as $90,000. He offered versions of the Batmobile from both the 1989 Tim Burton movie and the 1960s Adam West TV show.

In 2011, DC Comics, now part of Warner Bros., sued Towle, alleging infringement of DC’s copyrights and trademarks in the Batmobile.

Towle contended that the Batmobile, like the Statue of Liberty, was a design in the public domain. He said that it wasn’t protectable because the design had changed over time. He also contended that DC/Warner had waited too long to sue him, since they knew about his replicas at least as early as 2003.

Sidekicks

In 2013, a US federal court ruled that the Batmobile wasn’t just a “useful article.” (Useful articles aren’t entitled to copyright protection.) In fact, the judge found that the “world-famous conveyance” was virtually an “extension of Batman’s own persona,” and a “sidekick” comparable to Robin.

Towle appealed, and the Ninth Circuit sided with the district court.

The court opened its opinion with the exclamation “Holy copyright law, Batman!” and went on to relate the history of Batman and his world:

Since his first comic book appearance in 1939, the Caped Crusader has protected Gotham City from villains with the help of his sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder, his utility belt, and of course, the Batmobile.

The court noted that:

Originally introduced in the Batman comic books in 1941, the Batmobile is a fictional, high-tech automobile that Batman employs as his primary mode of transportation. The Batmobile has varied in appearance over the years, but its name and key characteristics as Batman’s personal crime-fighting vehicle have remained consistent. Over the past eight decades, the comic books have continually depicted the Batmobile as possessing bat-like external features, ready to leap into action to assist Batman in his fight against Gotham’s most dangerous villains, and equipped with futuristic weaponry and technology that is “years ahead of anything else on wheels.”

The Batmobile as a Character

The court noted that:

Courts have recognized that copyright protection extends not only to an original work as a whole, but also to “sufficiently distinctive” elements, like comic book characters, contained within the work.

The Ninth Circuit previously recognized the copyrightable nature of Disney characters, for example. In the case of Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates, Disney was able to fight the portrayal of Mickey Mouse and others as being involved in “a free thinking, promiscuous, drug ingesting counterculture.”

In another case, the court held that the car “Eleanor,” which appeared in both the 1971 and 2000 versions of Gone in 60 Seconds, was also entitled to copyright protection as a character.

Thus, it wasn’t a stretch for the court to conclude that the Batmobile, in all its iterations, was entitled to similar protection.

The case is Mark Towle v. DC Comics.

(Photo Credit: "Suicide Squad filming in Toronto 6" by Rama Fayaz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.) 

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