In a recent case, Warner Bros. sued Mark Towle for violating its intellectual property. Mark Towle has been operating a car customizing shop called Gotham Garage, which makes replicas of cars from TVs and movies. A U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew has ruled that the Batmobile is subject to copyright because the car is itself a fictional character in the Batman franchise. This decision, which indicates Batmobile vehicle is a protectable character much like its fictional owner, has significant repercussions for copyright law as well as for business sectors within the entertainment, digital media and manufacturing industries.
Although Lew found that, the Batmobile would be copyrightable as a “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural work,” it’s the discussion of the Batmobile as character that’s the most interesting. Lew ruled that Towle violated DC’s copyright on the character of the Batmobile.
Lew cited an earlier case, Halicki Films LLC, v. Sanderson Sales and Mktg. et al. That case brought to issue the question of whether or not the “Eleanor” car in the 1974 film Gone in 60 Seconds was a copyrightable character. The Ninth Circuit did not decide whether Eleanor was herself copyrightable. However, the case indicates that a non-sentient vehicle can be protected as copyrighted as long as it fulfills the other requirements of a character under copyright law. Copyright law protects content creators in literary characters if the character constitutes “the story being told.” As such, in this case, Lew held that Batmobile does fulfill that requirement to be protected under copyright law.
Given the current climate in graphic media, objects that we don’t traditionally consider characters would be integral to the storytelling. You could have a perfectly engaging story that centers on the Batmobile, after all. If other courts uphold this case or cite it as persuasive law, it creates some questions about what constitutes a character in storytelling, and what constitutes a mere storytelling accessory.
Article by Dorisa Shahmirzai, Esq.
Founding Attorney at IP Law Click