The next time a bank robber uses a Batmobile as a getaway vehicle, the thief might not only be guilty of larceny but also copyright infringement. That's because on Thursday, a federal judge in California ruled that the design of Batman's famous car is copyrightable.
"I need a vehicle...something special," Bruce Wayne once said.
What he got was a red 1936 Cord 810 sedan with no special modifications, introduced as the first Batmobile in 1940 in Detective Comics #35. Later, the automobile became blue, had a bat-shaped ornament protecting the front grille, was coated with titanium, and outfitted with all sorts of weapons and computer hardware. It became a popular staple of the Batman mythology.
Last year, DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., sued Mark Towle, who operated a business called "Gotham Garage," which sold imitation batmobiles. DC, represented by attorney Andy Coombs, accused Towles of violating its copyright and trademark and confusing the public into thinking that his cars were authorized products.
Trademark is one thing, but can an automobile design really be copyrighted?
According to U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew, it can if it's really special.
Towle moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the Copyright Act affords no protection to "useful articles."
But Judge Lew begs to differ, ruling that Towle "ignores the exception to the 'useful article' rule, which grants copyright protection to nonfunctional, artistic elements of an automobile design that can be physically or conceptually separated from the automobile."
In other words, the judge looked at the Batmobile and found there could be elements there that served no real purpose except it was pictorially unique. The judge will likely begin a fact-finding examination, such as whether the car really needs to be bat-shaped for it to be a crazy, cool ride.
The copyrightability of designs has been a hot topic of late in courts. Could Batman's costume be copyrighted? A lawsuit claiming copyright infringement in superhero costumes was settled in December before a judge gave a firm answer. Could Batman's furnished dark cave hideaway be copyrighted? Hard to say for sure, but a judge rejected earlier this month a claim that furniture designs met the standard for being conceptually separable from their utilitarian purposes.
Now, though, we've gone down the road of gaining firm clarity on the protectability of the Batmobile, which should worry those who have recreated Bruce Wayne's vehicle of choice. Yes, that includes bank robbers. The special vehicle has also popped up recently in Dubai, at various auto shows, in fashionable French museums, and on Justin Bieber's rear end. Hmm, is Justin Bieber going to jail for copyright infringement? Some might say yes.