Batmobile Wins Copyright Protection

The Batmobile is a car that has almost everything: weapons, ahead-of-its-time computers, wing-shaped tail fins and an assortment of gadgets perfectly suited to Batman's diverse crime-fighting needs. (The Bat-ray of the 1960s version, for instance, opened enemy car doors, while the version driven by Michael Keaton fired a grappling hook that allowed him round corners at improbable speeds.)

On Wednesday, the Batmobile received another upgrade: copyright protection.

To determine whether characters in comic books, television shows or movies are entitled to such protection, courts conduct a three-part test. First, the character must have "physical as well as conceptual qualities." It also has to be "sufficiently delineated" so people recognize it as the same character across time. And third, the character has to be "especially distinctive."

The Batmobile passed the test in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with Judge Sandra S. Ikuta declaring in the introduction to Wednesday's ruling, "Holy copyright law, Batman!"

DC Comics, the publisher and copyright owner of Batman comics, first introduced the Batmobile in 1941, just a few years after the Caped Crusader's first comic book appearance. The Batmobile has changed with the times and imaginations of its creators, but its core characteristics are immutable, Judge Ikuta said, including "bat-like external features, ready to leap into action to assist Batman in his fight against Gotham's most dangerous villains," as well as "futuristic weaponry and technology."

"As a copyrightable character, the Batmobile need not have a consistent appearance in every context, so long as the character has distinctive character traits and attributes," Judge Ikuta wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

Mark Towle, owner of Gotham Garage, makes replicas of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 movie. DC sued him in 2011, alleging, among other things, copyright infringement and trademark infringement.

Mr. Towle, in his court briefs, said the Batmobile had shifted shapes over time. In one rendition in the 1980s, for instance, it appeared as an armored tank with a rocket launcher. Mr. Towle requested that a jury decide the case and argued unsuccessfully that DC had waited too long to file claims against him.

Judge Ikuta ended her ruling with a quote from the Dark Knight himself:

As Batman so sagely told Robin, "In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential." Here, we conclude that the Batmobile character is the property of DC, and Towle infringed upon DC's property rights when he produced unauthorized derivative works of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 motion picture.

Larry Zerner, an attorney for Mr. Towle, said his client's replicas lacked the essence of the Batmobile character, at least as it was presented by the court.

"We didn't copy the design of the car in the comic book, and we didn't copy any of the character attributes. It's just a car," he said. "These automobiles don't fight crime."

A spokesman for Warner Bros., which owns DC, declined to comment.

The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2015 (Joe Palazzolo)

Copyright © 1995 - GrayZone, Inc. All Rights Reserved.