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Judge Declares Batmobile Is Subject to Copyright

6 February 2012

From Hollywood, Esq.:

The next time a bank robber uses a Batmobile as a getaway vehicle, the thief might not only be guilty of larceny but also copyright infringement. That’s because on Thursday, a federal judge in California ruled that the design of Batman’s famous car is copyrightable.

. . . .

Last year, DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., sued Mark Towles, who operated a business called “Gotham Garage,” which sold imitation batmobiles. DC, represented by attorney Andy Coombs, accused Towles of violating its copyright and trademark and confusing the public into thinking that his cars were authorized products.

Trademark is one thing, but can an automobile design really be copyrighted?

According to U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew, it can if it’s really special.

Towles moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Copyright Act affords no protection to “useful articles.”

But Judge Lew begs to differ, ruling that Towles “ignores the exception to the ‘useful article’ rule, which grants copyright protection to nonfunctional, artistic elements of an automobile design that can be physically or conceptually separated from the automobile.”

Link to the rest at Hollywood, Esq.

Copyright/Intellectual Property

6 Comments to “Judge Declares Batmobile Is Subject to Copyright”

  1. This is what design patents are supposed to cover, and those only last 14 years.

  2. This seriously disturbs me. Trademarking? Yes, I can see stopping it on that level. But copyright? I feel that is an abusive view that goes against the original intend of copyright.

  3. Then there’s the fact that there IS no one “Batmobile design.” I was a Batman comics fan as a kid and young adult, and even over just those 15-20 years I saw the Batmobile design change over and over. Pretty much every time the book got a new artist, it got a new Batmobile; sometimes they made a big deal out of it — publishing pages of “blueprints” and feature lists — and sometimes they just started drawing it different. Each movie has had its own Batmobile design, plus the TV show, plus the cartoons.

    Are they trying to protect all of them? Even the ones from the 1930s? Wouldn’t those be in the public domain by now, unless they’d been specifically extended? (Or am I confusing that with text/story copyrights?)

    And I would think the very fact that the copyright owner has used so many designs would make it easier for some third party to start designing new, original cars with black/gothic/batwingy type design details and call them Batmobiles, and have some segment of the public with money and comic book nostalgia accept that and pay money for one of those cars. In that case, the copyright holders has no actual claim on the design of the third-party Batmobile — or I wouldn’t think so. At that point, all they could do, I would think, would be to go for trademark infringement on the name “Batmobile” itself.

    Does that make any sense, or am I way out in left field here?


    • That makes sense to me. But this makes two judgments in the last month where something akin to an “idea” has been judged to be copyrighted. The other was a UK photography case where two people did the same photoshop of a London trolley. All of it disturbs me and undercuts the rational use argument for copyright protection…if media companies and judges get too out of control with declaring everything copyright then the average person is going to be entirely unsympathetic to copyright infringement claims.

      Like, I could almost understand their point if there were officially licensed batmobiles DC (or whichever of them it is) were selling…but they weren’t, and there was clearly a market. Even then, though, if the design was actually original to this shop? As long as they weren’t using the batman logo…I don’t see how that can count.

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