8 March 2016Copyright

US Supreme Court ends Batmobile copyright dispute

It’s a quest for justice you’re unlikely to see in any "Batman" comic, but yesterday DC Comics completed its fight to secure copyright protection for the Batmobile.

Yesterday, March 7, the US Supreme Court ended car designer Mark Towle’s fight to exclude the Batmobile from copyright protection and reverse an earlier ruling that he had infringed DC Comics’s copyright.

Towle manufacturers automobiles in the shape of the Batmobile, which featured in the 1966 “Batman” television series and 1989 “Batman” film. He sold the vehicles for $90,000 each.

But DC Comics complained that Towle’s designs infringed its copyright to the Batmobile and succeeded in persuading the US District Court for the Central District of California.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit also ruled in favour of DC Comics. It said the Batmobile demonstrated “consistent character traits and attributes” throughout the publication history of the Batman comics.

The ninth circuit added that the Batmobile has “physical as well as conceptual qualities” making it more than a “mere” literary character.

Other literary characters that qualify for copyright protection because they demonstrate “unique, protectable characteristics”, according to the ninth circuit, are James Bond, Godzilla, and Eleanor, the car that featured in both versions of the film “Gone in 60 Seconds”.

Towle filed the writ of certiorari in January complaining that the existing statute had excluded “useful items” from copyright protection, including automobiles.

“It is improper for the courts to arbitrarily create an exception to such a clear mandate by Congress,” he claimed.

Furthermore, he argued that DC created more than 100 Batmobiles with “very different characteristics, and no consistent, widely-identifiable traits”, meaning that the Batmobile should be disqualified from protection.

However, the Supreme Court denied the writ.

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More on this story

26 November 2015   The Batmobile has met a three-part test for determining whether a character in a comic book, television programme or motion picture is entitled to copyright protection, as Susan Kayser of Jones Day reports.
24 September 2015   The Batmobile has joined literary characters including James Bond and Godzilla in being deemed “especially distinctive” by a US appeals court and therefore deserving of copyright protection.