Holy Copyrights Batman!

In May 2011, DC Comics – owner of the copyright registrations to the Batman comic books – filed a lawsuit against Gotham Garage in California. The car dealer manufactured and sold replicas of iconic automobiles from famous motion pictures and television shows.

The mechanic sold fully constructed cars but also car tuning kits allowing car enthusiasts to adapt an existing car to look like the Batmobile. The garage also advertised and marketed its business using the word ‘batmobile’ and the domain name batmobilereplicas.com.

DC Comics invoked copyright infringement, trademark infringement and unfair competition.

The garage manufacturer countered that Batman’s car can not be subject to copyright protection: it is just a car, that is a useful article and is merely functional (utilitarian) rather than an artistic object.

For copyright infringement two elements should be proven: ownership of a valid copyright and copying by the defendant of protected elements of the plaintiff’s work.

The court followed DC Comics’ reasoning and judged that the Batmobile is a character entitled to copyright protection because of the name that identifies it as Batman’s personal vehicle. The titular car can also be distinguished by several consistent traits: it is a highly-interactive vehicle, equipped with high-tech gadgets and weaponry used to aid Batman in fighting crime. The Batmobile, in its various incarnations, is widely recognizable because it often contains bat-like motifs, such as a bat-faced grill or bat-shaped tailfins in the rear of the car, and it is almost always jet-black. It is entirely distinguishable from an ordinary automobile.

Furthermore, the car has a personality: the Batmobile is always depicted as being swift, cunning, strong and elusive… The comic books portray the Batmobile as a superhero.

Defendant’s replica mobiles are unauthorized derivative works: the protection of derivative rights extends beyond mere protection against unauthorized copying to include the right to ‘make other versions of the work.’

The court affirmed the Batmobile is sufficiently delineated to be recognizable as a character, and the automotive character has been consistent enough retaining distinctive characteristics (the evolving design over time does not alter that) to prohibit the unauthorized derivative works of the mobile.

Darts-IP references: 989fsupp2d948_20130207 and fcg150923277_20150923 Opinion Judge Ikuta

To find other cases on the question whether and when fictional characters are subject to copyright protection, search in our copyright database [Peppa Pig, Disney characters, Tintin, Angry Birds, Hello Kitty, Dr. Watson,…]