from the say-what-now? dept
And yet... for whatever reasons, courts have decided that "characters" can be covered by copyright. And now that takes us to this latest ruling, issued by Judge Sandra Ikuta, who appeared to recognize that it was going to get attention, as it kicks off with the joke that plenty of uncreative journalists might stick in their headlines:
We have previously determined that an automotive character can be copyrightable.... In Halicki, we considered whether “Eleanor,” a car that appeared in both the original 1971 and 2000 remake motion picture Gone in 60 Seconds, could be entitled to copyright protection as a character.... Considering Eleanor’s persistent attributes in both the original and remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, we concluded that Eleanor met some of the key factors necessary to qualify for copyright protection.... We first noted that Eleanor was more like a comic book character than a literary character given Eleanor’s “physical as well as conceptual qualities.” We also stated that Eleanor “displays consistent, widely identifiable traits and is especially distinctive.” (alteration, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). We gave several examples of these traits. First, we noted that “[i]n both films, the thefts of the other cars go largely as planned, but whenever the main human character tries to steal Eleanor, circumstances invariably become complicated.” Second, we noted that in the original, “the main character says ‘I’m getting tired of stealing this Eleanor car,’” and in the remake “the main character refers to his history with Eleanor.” Despite this evidence of distinctive traits, we were sensitive to the fact that the district court had implied that Eleanor was deserving of copyright protection, but had not directly examined this “fact-intensive issue.” Therefore, we remanded the issue to the district court to decide in the first instance.And, the court notes, it didn't matter that the car in the two films was totally different: "Halicki put no weight on the fact that Eleanor was a customized yellow 1971 Fastback Ford Mustang in one film, and a silver 1967 Shelby GT-500 in another." It then points to a variety of other cases in which characters have been declared covered by copyright, including James Bond, Godzilla and Batman himself. From these cases, the court creates a "three-part test" for determining if a character deserves copyright protection:
First, the character must generally have “physical as well as conceptual qualities.”...Using that test, not surprisingly, the court finds that the very concept of the Batmobile deserves copyright protection.
Second, the character must be “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears.... Considering the character as it has appeared in different productions, it must display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, although the character need not have a consistent appearance.
Third, the character must be “especially distinctive” and “contain some unique elements of expression.” ... It cannot be a stock character such as a magician in standard magician garb.... Even when a character lacks sentient attributes and does not speak (like a car), it can be a protectable character if it meets this standard.
First, because the Batmobile has appeared graphically in comic books, and as a three-dimensional car in television series and motion pictures, it has “physical as well as conceptual qualities,” and is thus not a mere literary character....I recognize that the court is building off of caselaw here, but it's difficult to see where or how this fits under the actual law. It seems like a totally made up standard.
And then we get to the big test: is the Batmobile, even in all its different designs and forms, "recognizable" as a single "character.":
Second, the Batmobile is “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears... As the district court determined, the Batmobile has maintained distinct physical and conceptual qualities since its first appearance in the comic books in 1941. In addition to its status as “a highly-interactive vehicle, equipped with high-tech gadgets and weaponry used to aid Batman in fighting crime,” 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.Yes, "always containing the most up-to-date weaponry and technology" is somehow a character trait of the Batmobile. But that seems... weird. I mean whatever car James Bond gets in every Bond film has a similar trait. Does that mean the Bond cars are also covered by copyright.
The Batmobile also has consistent character traits and attributes. No matter its specific physical appearance, the Batmobile is a “crime-fighting” car with sleek and powerful characteristics that allow Batman to maneuver quickly while he fights villains. In the comic books, the Batmobile is described as waiting “[l]ike an impatient steed straining at the reins . . . shiver[ing] as its super-charged motor throbs with energy” before it “tears after the fleeing hoodlums” an instant later. Elsewhere, the Batmobile “leaps away and tears up the street like a cyclone,” and at one point “twin jets of flame flash out with thunderclap force, and the miracle car of the dynamic duo literally flies through the air!” Like its comic book counterpart, the Batmobile depicted in both the 1966 television series and the 1989 motion picture possesses “jet engine[s]” and flame-shooting tubes that undoubtedly give the Batmobile far more power than an ordinary car. Furthermore, the Batmobile has an ability to maneuver that far exceeds that of an ordinary car. In the 1966 television series, the Batmobile can perform an “emergency bat turn” via reverse thrust rockets. Likewise, in the 1989 motion picture, the Batmobile can enter “Batmissile” mode, in which the Batmobile sheds “all material outside [the] central fuselage” and reconfigures its “wheels and axles to fit through narrow openings.”
Equally important, the Batmobile always contains the most up-to-date weaponry and technology. At various points in the comic book, the Batmobile contains a “hot-line phone . . . directly to Commissioner Gordon’s office” maintained within the dashboard compartment, a “special alarm” that foils the Joker’s attempt to steal the Batmobile, and even a complete “mobile crime lab” within the vehicle. Likewise, the Batmobile in the 1966 television series possesses a “Bing-Bong warning bell,” a mobile Bat-phone, a “Batscope, complete with [a] TV-like viewing screen on the dash,” and a “Bat-ray.” Similarly, the Batmobile in the 1989 motion picture is equipped with a “pair of forward-facing Browning machine guns,” “spherical bombs,” “chassismounted shinbreakers,” and “side-mounted disc launchers.” Because the Batmobile, as it appears in the comic books as well as in the 1966 television show and 1989 motion picture, displays “consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes,” the second prong of the character analysis is met here.
And, again, how the hell do you settle this with the idea/expression dichotomy? Copyright is for specific expression and not general ideas, and yet this entire ruling is basically saying the idea of the Batmobile is covered by copyright.
Third, the Batmobile is “especially distinctive” and contains unique elements of expression. In addition to its status as Batman’s loyal bat-themed sidekick complete with the character traits and physical characteristics described above, the Batmobile also has its unique and highly recognizable name. It is not merely a stock character.In short: give your car a name, and you can convince a court that it is a character deserving separate copyright protections. The court tosses out Towle's defense that because the Batmobile constantly changes in appearance that you can't give the general "Batmobile" copyright power, but the court says (somewhat questionably) that it's no different than the fact that James Bond sometimes changes clothes. Yes, really.
The changes in appearance cited by Towle resemble costume changes that do not alter the Batmobile’s innate characteristics, any more than James Bond’s change from blue swimming trunks (in Casino Royale) to his classic tuxedo affects his iconic character.Here's the thing: I could pretty much see if the court had decided simply that each of the individual designs of the Batmobile in the TV series and the movie deserved their own copyright for the decorative, non-useful elements of the automobile, and then found that the work infringed on those elements. That seems like a more reasonable argument (if a silly one, as I'll get to in a moment). But that's not what the court is ruling. It's saying specifically that the very idea of the Batmobile is covered by copyright, and thus even if you were to design a Batmobile that met the basic criteria set out above, but which looked nothing like an actual depiction of the Batmobile in the comics, TV or movies, you could still be infringing on the copyright. That seems messed up.
It strikes me as bizarre that the court never even mentions the whole idea/expression dichotomy, which is supposed to be a key part of copyright law.
Now, even if we leave all this aside and say that it's fine for DC to hold such a copyright, there's a separate question: should it be going after this guy? And that seems pretty ridiculous as well. The people buying these replica cars are huge fans of the Batman TV series or movie. The reason they're buying these replica vehicles is to show off that fandom and to freely promote the original work, drawing much more attention to it. Unless DC is magically planning to get into the car licensing business (really?), it's hard to see why it feels the need to step in and shut this down, other than to piss off some Batman superfans (with money to burn). Is that really a wise use of DC's legal resources?