Batman’s preferred mode of transportation is certainly famous, but can it be copyrighted? According to a federal judge in California, it can.
DC Comics filed the lawsuit against Mark Towles, the owner of a California business called “Gotham Garage.” The lawsuit contended that Towles’ sale of imitation Batmobiles violated its copyright and trademark and misled the public into thinking that his cars were authorized products.
The lawsuit specifically alleged that Towles sold “unlicensed replica vehicle modification kits based on vehicle design copyrights from plaintiff’s Batman property, including various iterations of the fictional automobile, the Batmobile.”
Towles sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the famous car was not protected under the Copyright Act because it was considered a “useful article.” A useful article is an object that has an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. U.S. copyright law does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of such works of craftsmanship.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew agreed that copyright law generally does not apply to “useful articles” such as cars; however, he also acknowledged that the Batmobile isn’t just any car. In this case, it has both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features.
The judge said that he could make a “reasonable inference that there may be non-functional artistic elements of the Batmobile that may possibly be separated from the utilitarian aspect of the automobile. As such, the court finds that the Batmobile and all of its relevant embodiments are not, as a matter of law, excluded from copyright protection.”
As noted by Wired, the ruling doesn’t mean that DC Comics has won the copyright infringement lawsuit, just that it can go forward. In this case, I would not be surprised if the parties reached an eventual settlement.