batmobile-west

This guest post was written by Hayk Stambultsyan, a PLEAS student in Southwestern’s Entertainment Law and Web 2.0 course:

Bam! said the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And Ow! was what auto designer Mark Towle likely felt in his Gotham Garage as the appellate judges in Pasadena, Calif., recently decided his replica Batmobiles infringed on copyrights held by DC Comics.

The appellate court rejected the arguments by Towle’s attorneys that the super hero’s legendary vehicle, as seen in a Sixties television series and in movies, varied in looks and design between 1969 and 1989, and, that, at the end of the day, it was just a car. Notably, automotive design has not been afforded protection under the Copyright Act.

But DC comics’ counsel countered that the Batmobile could be protected because it was not just a vehicle but actually a “distinctive element” of the super hero’s character and even a character unto itself. As U.S. District Judge Sandra S. Ikuta wrote for the three-judge panel, the Batmobile “is known by one consistent name that identifies it as Batman’s personal vehicle,” and, though some of its physical traits have changed over time, several have remained consistent, including its “high-tech gadgets and weaponry,” “bat-like motifs,” and its jet-black color.

Further, the court found that the Batmobile is “depicted as being swift, cunning, strong and elusive,” and is even portrayed as a “superhero” and “Batman’s sidekick, if not an extension of Batman’s own persona.”

Its consistent, distinctive, character-creating elements helped ensure the vehicle merited copyright protections, case commentators noted, and DC clearly holds its copyrights, Ikuta said, adding, the “Batmobile in each production was derived from the Batmobile depicted in DC’s comic books.” The appellate panel found Towle showed bad faith when he said he knowingly used “Batman property and various bat emblems and symbols.”

And, in its coup de grace in the case, Ikuta quoted, who else? Oof, Batman, of course, writing: “As Batman so sagely told Robin, ‘In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential.’ Batman: The Penguin Goes Straight, (Greenway Productions television broadcast March 23, 1966).”