A 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: