We’ve mentioned a few times here a lawsuit for copyright infringement by DC against an outfit called Gotham Garage, which sells replica Batmobiles—based on the ’60s Batman TV show in particular—as well as other vehicles based on famed fantasy cars, like the Mach Five.
If you were thinking of buying one, better hurry, because a judge has ruled that the Batmobile is subject to copyright.
Well of course it is, you may be saying. But that’s not actually the usual legal thinking. A car design is subject to trademark but not copyright. Gotham Garage owner Mark Towles argued that the Copyright Act can’t be extended to “useful articles” like a car. But the judge ruled that….the Batmobile isn’t really that useful, so that argument ran out of gas on the way back to the Batcave.
The judge ruled that Towles “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.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, a can of worms has been set loose by this ruling and other similar recent cases where copyright and ordinary use run afoul:
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.
In other words, just because a chair is made to fit the expanding American butt, it isn’t just utilitarian, it’s designed…and maybe copyrightable.
Our legal knowledge being limited, we’re going to just shut up and yell, “Hey Jeff Trexler!”
UPDATE: Okay Maybe we don’t need Jeff Trexler. After looking at the court docs, it doesn’t look like this case has been settled one way or another—the judge has ruled against Towle’s motion to dismiss, but the most recent filing is not a definitive ruling.
Here’s the original complaint:
and the most recent motion: