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Supreme Court Declines To Hear Batmobile Copyright Case

from the holy-copyright,-batman dept

We wrote last year about a copyright dispute between DC Comics and guy by the name of Mark Towle, who had been custom producing Batmobiles for Batman fans. Mike’s analysis in that post is wonderfully detailed and you should read it if you want a deep dive into the specifics of how the court ruled, but I will summarize it here for you as well. The 9th Circuit ruled that the Batmobile was deserving of the same copyright protections as other fictional characters, despite it being a depiction of an inanimate object, and it completely ignored the entire expression/idea dichotomy that is supposed to govern copyright law. That dichotomy can be explained as giving copyright protection to specific expressions of an idea without protecting the idea itself. For instance, the depiction of HAL the homicidal computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey may be covered under copyright, but the idea of a homicidal artificial intelligence is not.

Yet, despite the Batmobile’s ever-changing appearance and functionality, and despite its expression in comic and film form not being identical to custom real-life productions by a car enthusiast, the court ruled against Towle and essentially claimed the very idea of the Batmobile was deserving of copyright protection. The last remaining opportunity to have the courts specifically weigh the idea/expression dichotomy in this case would have been the Supreme Court, but SCOTUS has apparently declined to take the case up.

The Supreme Court is staying out of a copyright dispute involving a California man who produced replicas of the Batmobile for car-collecting fans of the caped crusader. The justices on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that said the Batmobile’s bat-like appearance and high-tech gadgets make it a character that can’t be duplicated without permission from DC Comics, the copyright holder.

It’s cases like this in which the Supreme Court refuses to weigh in that allows courts like the 9th Circuit to seemingly specialize in wacky copyright and intellectual property rulings. One hopes that other cases in other circuits will raise similar issues enough that SCOTUS decides to step in at a later date, rather than let this be the last word on this issue. I would have thought that a court ruling that fails to even mention the idea/expression dichotomy would have been one that SCOTUS would have found ripe for comment, but apparently not. All hail the Batmobile, a character on par with Batman himself, apparently.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Declines To Hear Batmobile Copyright Case”

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23 Comments
amoshias (profile) says:

Wait, what?

“Yet, despite the Batmobile’s ever-changing appearance and functionality, and despite its expression in comic and film form not being identical to custom real-life productions by a car enthusiast, the court ruled against Towle and essentially claimed the very idea of the Batmobile was deserving of copyright protection.”

You understand how comic books WORK, right? How they have artists and writers constantly interpreting and re-interpreting the different elements within them? How is anything you said in that paragraph any different between the Batmobile and Batman himself? This page (http://cdn.screenrant.com/wp-content/uploads/batman-infographic.jpg) has at least 35 different and distinct costumes that Batman has worn throughout the years. If I draw a character that is recognizably Batman, but uses a color combination that DC has never used, am I somehow NOT violating copyright there? By the same token, if I create something that EVERYONE RECOGNIZES AS THE BATMOBILE, and the only reason it has VALUE is because people recognize it as such… well, honestly, that doesn’t sound like stretching copyright law to me. That sounds like the fundamental protection that copyright is supposed to extend to creators.

I honestly don’t even understand how you can write this article – which fundamentally recognizes that “Batmobile” is something that everyone reading this will understand without explanation. The *idea* here is that a billionaire playboy who fights crime as a superhero has a cool car. If you want to make your Techdirt car – which a souped-up crimefighting car in the style of the Batmobile but with Techdirt regalia in place of the bats – THAT is the idea/expression dichotomy. Making a Batmobile, that everyone recognizes as a Batmobile (and seriously, spend 30 seconds googling Mark Towle, the first image that comes up is him standing in front of an AWESOME replica of the Adam West Batmobile) is copying the expression. Just because there might be some differences in detailing cannot make a difference.

I also think it’s fundamentally weird that you seem to take umbrage with the idea that the batmobile is an inanimate “character”. Does copyright protection somehow not cover characters unless they are animate? So the Mach 5 from Speed Racer (btw, another car which Mark Towle has copied, with a license this time, which is why it’s on my mind) isn’t protected? Cinderella’s castle? The Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, an X-Wing fighter? All of these things, because they’re not animate, can’t be copyrighted? I’m not sure what the legal basis for this is, but I would love to read the case law you’re basing your statements on.

Do I think DC is WISE in shutting this guy down? No, they should probably offer him a license – the stuff he does is AWESOME. But if he’s making money selling people batmobiles, I’m not sure there’s any reasonable argument that they’re not within their rights to shut him down.

Walid Damouny (profile) says:

Re: Re: am I somehow NOT violating copyright there?

Your statement doesn’t quite negate the OP’s point. The batmobile is an expression. The car maker isn’t making cars based on an idea of transportation for a caped vigilante but is rather copying that particular expression of it. Searching for “Mark Towle” brings up batmobiles from very specific movies and games. These are not merely ideas these are specific expressions of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Satire Bat-mobile

You’re thinking of the syndicated series “BatFink”, who was, in fact, a bat, albeit one with bulletproof “wings of steel”.
He had an Asian sidekick named “Karate’, who was expert in, what else, karate, and was a tribute to The Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato.
The car was actually a variation of the original 1940s Batmobile.
Check out the Internet Movie DataBase for more info.

Anonymous Coward says:

Now even though I’ve read up some on copyright law IANAL, so I don’t really know.

This seems to go beyond copyright. Doesn’t trademark law technically apply here ?

Can a judge rule something that is not a matter of copyright to be so? Does that set legal precedent.

At this point I fear that come 2018 not only will we get another copyright extension, but an expansion as well, allowing, for the first time, for concepts and ideas (at least in a limited scope) to fall under copyright.

This is going to be a mess…

Anonymous Coward says:

a non-news story really

the problem could lie in who actually owns the trademark/copyright on it

DC – it’s the Batmobile

Fox/Fleetway – the 55 Lincoln, one of 3 notable “Batmobiles” the other 2 is the 89 film (Chevy Impala base), and TAS Batmobile.

Essentially the OTHER article has a rather well write-up on the whole thing. If you are like me and skipped it: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20150923/15591132350/appeals-court-says-batmobile-is-character-covered-copyright.shtml

Also by that legal definition, K.I.T.T. (all versions) Airwolf, and Ecto-1. Simply because they are “unique”, Ie. you don’t associate those cars outside of their respective universes. If that made sense.
Lincoln/GM – it IS a Lincoln 55 Futura Concept, developed for Fleetway for the West Series.

either way, it seems that this kit maker didn’t have the license to make said kits.

John85851 (profile) says:

This is a classic example of product confusion

I don’t see what the problem is.
The guy is clearly making replica Batmobiles. It doesn’t matter what he calls them if people are recognizing them as being Batmobile replicas.
DC Comics owns the likeness to the Batmobile and associated names. He’s selling these without a license, implying an endorsement from DC Comics, and possibly in violation of another car-maker’s license.

Isn’t this what copyright was meant for?

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