The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to review a ruling that the Batmobile isn’t merely an automobile, but rather distinctive enough to warrant copyright protection.
Mark Towle, who previously created unlicensed replicas of the 1966 and 1989 Batmobiles, petitioned the high court in January to consider his five-year-old dispute with DC Comics. The company had sued Towle in 2011, claiming his Gotham Garage violated its trademarks and copyrights by manufacturing the replicas, which he sold for about $90,000 each.
Towle argued that the U.S. Copyright Act doesn’t protect “useful articles,” defined as objects that have “an intrinsic utilitarian function” (for example, clothing, household appliances or, in this case, automobile functions); in short, that the Batmobile’s design is merely functional.
However, a federal judge didn’t buy that argument, ruling in February 2013 that, “The ‘functional elements’ – e.g., the fictional torpedo launchers, the Bat-scope, and anti-fire systems – are only ‘functional’ to the extent that they helped Batman fight crime in the fictional Batman television series and movies. Thus, the Batmobile’s usefulness is a construct.”
Towle appealed that decision, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wasn’t any more sympathetic, finding in September that, “the Batmobile is almost always bat-like in appearance, with a bat-themed front end, bat wings extending from the top or back of the car, exaggerated fenders, a curved windshield, and bat emblems on the vehicle. This bat-like appearance has been a consistent theme throughout the comic books, television series, and motion picture, even though the precise nature of the bat-like characteristics have changed from time to time.”
In his petition to the high court, Towle insisted that the U.S. Copyright Office states outright that automobiles aren’t copyrightable, and that the Ninth Circuit simply created an arbitrary exception. He also argued that there have been “dozens” of Batmobiles in DC comic books over the decades that “vary dramatically in appearance and style” — so much so that the vehicle doesn’t have the “consistent, widely-identifiable, physical attributes” required to be considered a “character.”
(via The Hollywood Reporter)