Holy Utilitarian Object, Batman! Court Rules Batmobile Design Is Copyrighted Character!

Parade Adam WestA Cal­i­for­nia dis­trict court has granted DC Comics sum­mary judg­ment on copy­right infringe­ment claims against a man­u­fac­turer of famous car repli­cas, who sold repli­cas of the ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile depicted in the 1966 tele­vi­sion show and the 1989 movie.  The case pre­sented sev­eral inter­est­ing issues, includ­ing own­er­ship and copyrightability.

With respect to own­er­ship, the case was brought by DC Comics, notwith­stand­ing that the two par­tic­u­lar ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile copied by the defen­dant were not cre­ated for the comics, but rather were cre­ated by the respec­tive tele­vi­sion show and movie pro­duc­ers.  The only copy­right reg­is­tra­tions cov­er­ing the two ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile at issue in the case listed those pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, not DC Comics, as the copy­right claimants.  The dis­trict court essen­tially held that DC had stand­ing because in its agree­ments with those pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies it had reserved any exist­ing rights in var­i­ous Bat­man char­ac­ters and obtained exclu­sive “mer­chan­dis­ing rights” related to the tele­vi­sion show and movie.  The court also held that, even with­out any express reser­va­tion of rights, DC had stand­ing because the ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile depicted in the tele­vi­sion show and movie were deriv­a­tive works based upon the ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile depicted in the comics.  By copy­ing the deriv­a­tive works, the court rea­soned, the defen­dant nec­es­sar­ily copied the under­ly­ing works owned by DC.

Expe­ri­enced copy­right prac­ti­tion­ers might assume that DC ran into some trou­ble when the analy­sis turned to the ques­tion of copy­right pro­tec­tion for the design of an auto­mo­bile.  Not so, how­ever.  Here, the dis­trict court held that the car design was enti­tled to copy­right pro­tec­tion as a fic­tional char­ac­ter.  Draw­ing upon the line of cases extend­ing copy­right pro­tec­tion to fic­tional, visu­ally depicted char­ac­ters (includ­ing comic book super­heros) where such char­ac­ters are espe­cially dis­tinc­tive and have dis­played con­sis­tent, widely iden­ti­fi­able traits, the dis­trict court held (as a mat­ter of law) that the Bat­mo­bile met these require­ments.  The con­sis­tent and dis­tinc­tive traits enu­mer­ated by the court include: (1) the Bat­mo­bile is known by one con­sis­tent name that iden­ti­fies it as Batman’s vehi­cle; (2) it is a highly inter­ac­tive vehi­cle, equipped with high-tech gad­gets and weaponry for crime fight­ing; (3) it fea­tures “bat-like motifs” such as a bat-faced grill or bat-shaped tail­fins; (4) it is almost always jet black; (5) it is swift, cun­ning, strong and elu­sive.  It is not clear how accu­rate these fact find­ings are (I cer­tainly remem­ber blue Bat­mo­biles in the comics and fail to under­stand what is unique about a swift car or how a car can be cun­ning, strong or elu­sive), it is even less clear how many of these sup­posed attrib­utes were actu­ally present in the replica.

As an alter­na­tive hold­ing, the court also held that the Bat­mo­bile is pro­tectable as a pic­to­r­ial, graphic or sculp­tural work.  The court’s rea­son­ing here, how­ever, begins with its not­ing that the Bat­mo­bile is not a “mere car” but rather is a char­ac­ter (as noted above).  While acknowl­edg­ing that auto­mo­biles are usu­ally con­sid­ered non-protectable util­i­tar­ian objects, the court held both that (1) the Bat­mo­bile as depicted in the comics incor­po­rated “fan­tasy ele­ments that do not appear on real-world vehi­cles” and (2) that the design ele­ments of the tele­vi­sion shoe and movie Bat­mo­biles are con­cep­tu­ally sep­a­ra­ble from the under­ly­ing cars because “the under­ly­ing vehi­cle would still be a car with­out the exag­ger­ated bat fea­tures.”  The court even goes so far as to find that the color scheme of the Bat­mo­bile and the names of some of the gad­gets (the Bat Scope and Bat Ray) are sep­a­rately copyrightable.

The sub­stan­tial sim­i­lar­ity por­tion of the deci­sion is as con­fus­ing as the copy­righta­bil­ity por­tion, though much shorter.  Although much of the copy­righta­bil­ity analy­sis relied upon the var­i­ous depic­tions of the Bat­mo­bile in the comic books owned by DC and the “con­sis­tent and dis­tinc­tive traits” in those comics engen­der­ing char­ac­ter copy­right pro­tec­tion, the sub­stan­tial sim­i­lar­ity por­tion focuses exclu­sively upon the tele­vi­sion show and movie ver­sions of the Bat­mo­bile.  Not sur­pris­ingly, because the defendant’s cars were made to be repli­cas of the tele­vi­sion show and movie Bat­mo­biles, the court found ample similarities.

Rid­dle me this, Bat­man, if car man­u­fac­tur­ers replace their cat­a­logs with a line of comic books fea­tur­ing their cars, will all auto­mo­tive designs become copyrightable?

This is a very … inter­est­ing … deci­sion, attached below for your own review and analysis:

photo by: LaMenta3

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