Holy Schnikes, Batman! Who Really Owns Your Ride?
Holy Hollywood! It turns out the Caped Crusader doesn’t actually have the pink slip to that fancy whip we know as the Batmobile.
So, who does? The 9th Circuit Court is poised to answer that question this summer. For those of you who haven’t been following all things Batmobile (you really need to get out of your Bat Cave), there has been an ongoing litigation over whether or not the Batmobile is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. The Players: Gotham Garage Owner, Mark Towle, and DC Comics. Towle has been making and selling unlicensed Batmobile replicas from the 1960’s TV show and 1989 film. However, this past February, the District Court for the Central District of California informed him his replicas violated DC Comics’ copyrights and trademarks. Alas, the story doesn’t end there. Refusing to drive off into the sunset, Towle is appealing the ruling and, while the issues for trademarks and trade dress have been discussed throughout, the main issue in the appellate production deals with copyright.
Ok, let’s talk a little legalese. DC Comics is, in fact, the copyright holder to the Batman comic books. As such, they have the exclusive right to prepare derivative works and can sue for copyright infringement. Since replicas fall under the category of derivative works, DC Comics was within their legal rights to sue Towle for copyright infringement. Towle returned fire with a claim that the Batmobile is just a car, so it is not protected by copyright. The District Court for the Central District of California disagreed, holding that the Batmobile is subject to copyright protection because it is an especially distinctive character. (See D.C. Comics v. Towle (2013)) (available here).
There is no special category for characters within the realm of copyright law. Characters may be protected by copyright, but they must meet specific requirements in order for protection to extend to them. The character must be sufficiently well-delineated in order to be more than an abstract idea and can become a protectable element if sufficiently expressed. The 9th Circuit has previously held characters may receive protection if they have “displayed consistent, widely identifiable traits.” Basically, in layman’s terms, the character must be an integral part of the story being told.
Towle’s main argument is that Batman’s set of wheels is simply a “useful article,”, merely functional, not a character, and thus not protected by U.S. Copyright Law. However, this argument may not hold much ground given previous 9th Circuit decisions regarding inanimate objects being afforded copyright protection as characters. Case in point: Eleanor from “The Fast and the Furious” and even Freddy Krueger’s glove. Yes — Precisely, Robin — a car and a glove. Both inanimate objects, both protected by copyright. In fact, Krueger’s glove was deemed to be copyrightable simply because it was so closely associated with a well-known character.
Since the Batmobile is known across generations, it is fairly safe to say that it has a strong association with a widely-known character known as Batman, the main character and namesake of a hit television show and several movies. Cover your ears, Robin…the District Court even went so far as to state the Batmobile appears as Batman’s sidekick, “central to Batman’s ability to fight crime…if not an extension of Batman’s own persona.”
Towle countered that only conceptually separable artistic elements are protected by copyright. In other words, only elements that can stand on their own as art can be protected. He contends the Batmobile is just a car and the design is not protected. In other words, Towle claims that the sculpted bat fin is not just for show; it functionality contributes to the aerodynamics of the vehicle. Towle further argues the Batmobile has not remained consistent over time. It has changed and evolved in that it has not always been aerodynamic, and/or had fancy bat gadgets or exaggerated parts. This particular argument could make or break the case since only characters that are “especially distinctive” are entitled to copyright protection; those that have been afforded this protection have displayed consistent traits.
Batmobile: protectable character or just another car? All opinions aside, the upcoming 9th Circuit decision will either be a powerful win for Hollywood studios or we will start seeing a proliferation of movie prop imitations. So grab some popcorn, place your bets, and stay tuned for the ruling. You’ll read about it here. Same Bat time, same Bat channel.
 D.C. Comics v. Towle, Case No. CV11-3934 RSWL C.D. Cal. February 7, 2013)  http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2014/03/comics-a-m-batmobile-copyright-fight-heading-back-to-court/  D.C. Comics v. Towle, Case No. CV11-3934 RSWL C.D. Cal. February 7, 2013)  http://www.docstoc.com/docs/document-preview.aspx?doc_id=144981876  Rice v. Fox Broad. Co., 330 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2003)  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/batmobile-does-warner-bros-own-686380  D.C. Comics v. Towle, Case No. CV11-3934 RSWL C.D. Cal. February 7, 2013)  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/batmobile-does-warner-bros-own-686380  Rice v. Fox Broad, Co. ,330 F. 3d 1170