The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Batmobile is a character protected by copyright law.

The court was asked to decide whether defendant Mark Towles infringed the copyright of DC comics when he built and sold replicas of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 Batman TV show and 1989 Batman movie.

We previously wrote about the case in this blog.

“Holy copyright law, Batman!”

The court could not resist starting its opinion with “Holy copyright law, Batman!”

The judge noted that the Batmobile was first introduced in the Batman comics in 1941 as a “fictional, high-tech automobile that Batman employs as his primary mode of transportation.”

The court also noted that the Batmobile has varied in appearance over the years, but that its name and key characteristics have remained consistent.

Futuristic Weaponry

According to the court, the Batmobile possesses:

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.”

Warner Bros., which now owns DC comics, sued Towles for building custom cars based on the Batmobile. Towles claimed that the car was not protectable because it has changed in appearance over time. A district court judge agreed with the studio in a 2013 decision.

Character Test

The court laid out a three-part test for “determining whether a character in a comic book, television program, or motion picture is entitled to copyright protection”:

  • First, the character must generally have “physical as well as conceptual qualities.”
  • Second, the character must be “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears. Considering the character as it has appeared in different productions, it must display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, although the character need not have a consistent appearance.
  • Third, the character must be “especially distinctive” and “contain some unique elements of expression.”

The case is Mark Towle v. DC Comics.

Takeaway

This is far from the first case in which a fictional character — or even a car — has been deemed eligible for protection under copyright law. But with this 9th Circuit decision, car collectors and customizers had better watch out. Where is my “Back to the Future” Delorean?

As Law360 notes, federal courts have protected characters since at least 1914.

Other protected characters include Superman, Mickey Mouse, James Bond, Godzilla, and “Eleanor” – the car in Gone in 60 Seconds.

The court’s new three-part test is a useful guide for cases in the Ninth Circuit, especially since these cases are so likely to emerge from Hollywood’s home circuit.

About Us

Leech Tishman’s Intellectual Property Group is based in Pasadena, California with a team of highly-regarded legal professionals with prosecution and litigation expertise in the fields of patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secrets.

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Photo Attribution: “Batmobile1943″ by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – via Commons.

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