After several years of legal donuts with car replica maker Mark Towle, DC Comics and Warner Bros today finally can kick the tires and light the fires and speed off in the Batmobile. In a very witty and pop culture-sprinkled opinion — and probably the only one you’ll ever read that quotes Adam West’s Batman and lifts Robin’s fev expression — the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday firmly handed the copyright keys to the Dark Knight’s wheels to the media giant – literally with the words “Holy copyright law, Batman!”
“The panel held that DC Comics owned a copyright interest in the Batmobile character, as expressed in the 1966 television series and the 1989 motion picture, because it did not transfer its underlying rights to the character when it licensed rights to produce derivative works,” Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote for the three-judge panel (read it here). The opinion reaffirms U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew’s ruling on the contested-car matter back in early 2013. “The panel held that the defendant’s replica cars infringed on DC Comics’ copyrights.”
DC first went after Towle for trademark and copyright infringement in May 2011 over the Gotham Garage operator’s replica Batmobiles. Part of Towle’s ambitious defense was that you can’t copyright a car look because it is neither useful unto itself nor meeting the standard to be a work of art, like sculptures commonly are cited in such disputes. George Barris put the original Batmobile for the ABC TV series together for the show. Over the years, Towle, who has built and sold other vehicles like those seen in films and TV shows, had made nearly $200,000 off Batmobile replicas he had created.
In the legal battle with DC, the unbowed Towle and the California man’s lawyers also pondered if such a suit by DC would send a chill through the great car industry and that his Batmobile didn’t look like the car in the comics, which should be the standard of copyright. After arguments and summary judgment motions on both sides, Judge Lew found in favor of DC in February 2013. Towle and attorney Lawrence Zerner eventually drove the whole thing over to the Appeals Court, where the matter was argued on February 15 this year.
They didn’t get a lot of traction.
“As Batman so sagely told Robin, ‘In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential,’” Judge Ikuta adds with almost fangirl fervor, along with references to James Bond, “Gotham City’s most notorious evildoers,” Godzilla, and the Batmobile having the “most up-to-date weaponry and technology.” Seriously. “Here, we conclude that the Batmobile character is the property of DC, and Towle infringed upon DC’s property rights when he produced unauthorized derivative works of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 motion picture.” Judge Ikuta, along with Judges Michael Melloy and Jay Bybee, also rejected the argument about the Batmobile Towle was selling not being the same as in the comics. “As a copyrightable character, the Batmobile need not have a consistent appearance in every context, so long as the character has distinctive character traits and attributes.”
Hit the road, Mark.