Court Monitor

Comics Ride Batmobile to Victory

The "Batmobile" is the cool car that Batman drove while fighting the bad guys of Gotham. It first appeared in comic books and was then featured in both the Batman television series of 1966 and a movie starring Michael Keeton in 1989. More recently, a car customizer built replicas of the Batmobile, and sold these cars for roughly $90,000 each as a collector's item. He also sold kits that would allow car owners to make their own cars look like the Batmobile.

Copyright law began protecting comic book characters as early as 1914, and because they have drawn physical characteristics they enjoy greater copyright protection than most literary figures. Batman first appeared in a May 1939 comic book as the masked crime-fighter whose underlying identity was the wealthy Bruce Wayne when he was not punching out the bad guys. He had a secret cave underneath his mansion, where he could jump into his Batmobile and get to the scene of a crime faster than the Gotham police could. Unlike Superman, who preceded him in comic book lore, Batman had no special powers but did have a keen mind and nifty technology. The Batmobile was one of his imaginary toys to help fight crime, and this car made its first appearance in the Batman comics in 1941.

DC Comics, which owns the comic book series, sued Mark Towle for building and selling replicas of the Batmobile without a license from DC Comics. But ordinarily copyright law does not protect "useful articles," and aren't cars -- such as a functioning Batmobile replica -- useful for traveling? This lawsuit wound its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which wrote a colorful opinion establishing copyright protection for the Batmobile. DC Comics v. Towle, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16837 (9th Cir. Sept. 23, 2015).

"Holy copyright law, Batman!", the unanimous three-judge panel declared at the outset of its opinion, in imitation of the exclamations frequently shouted by Batman's sidekick, Robin.

The Ninth Circuit observed that another fictional car known as "Eleanor," which appeared in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds (both in its 1971 original and its remake in 2000), was potentially entitled to copyright protection. The test is whether the object "has distinctive character traits and attributes," which the Court found the Batmobile has. Its characteristics need not always be the same, as long as it has "consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes."

DC Comics was slow in suing to stop the ongoing copyright infringement, but that delay does not matter if the defendant acted willfully in exploiting a protected work, such as a trademark. The Court ruled entirely for D.C. Comics despite its tardiness in suing.

George Barris, a car customizer who helped establish California's car culture, refurbished a 1955 Lincoln Futura to create the Batmobile for television. His made-for-TV Batmobile sold for $4.2 million in 2013, and Barris passed away on Nov. 5th.