Last week, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew made a decision to allow DC Comics to sue a man who was making and selling Batmobiles on the grounds of copyright and trademark infringement. Despite numerous articles you may have read, this is nothing new.
Automobile enthusiast Mark Towles was manufacturing and selling a variety of Batmobiles through his company Gotham Garage as well as other items from TV and movie history including the 1966 version of the Batboat and the famed Munsters family car. DC Comics found out about this man’s company and decided that it was within their right to file a claim against the man for violation of copyright and patents that they’ve had on the Batmobile for decades. Towles and his attorney attempted to have the copyright claim, and thusly the entire case, thrown out against him because they did not believe that an automobile could be copyrighted. They were completely and utterly wrong.
You see, U.S. copyright law clearly states through a variety of cases that when it comes to automobiles, all non-functioning or non utilitarian aspects of the vehicle’s design are completely subject to copyright. So, in an instance where the Batmobile, a car with fins, bats, bat-hubcaps, and a fire-spitting jet engine exhaust, the design is completely copyrightable and is thusly subject to copyright infringement. But, this is not new. This is completely standard. What you may not realize is that this decision is not at all groundbreaking, and the opinion released from Judge Lew was simply that he will allow a case of copyright infringement to be heard and tried against Towles, the owner and proprietor of Gotham Garage. The law that allows vehicles to be copyrighted depending on non-functional design has been in the books for years, Towles just didn’t know about it.
But what does this mean? It doesn’t mean anything at all. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own Batmobile, and it doesn’t even mean that you can’t hire someone to soup up your ’93 Camaro to look like the Tumbler if that’s what you what. Again, this ruling is standard and has not made any changes to the law in any way. But, even if there was a ruling that was against Towles for violating copyright, which hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t mean that the version of the Joel Schumacher Batman and Robin Batmobile that’s sitting in your garage, with its lights and ribbing, will be taken away from you, nor does it mean that you’ll be taken to court and sued, because one exception to copyright law — and trust me as a student of copyright law, there are plenty of exceptions — is that of fair use, and one of those fair uses falls under the category of personal use. Using logical thinking and deduction, the only reason that DC Comics was going after, and really having a case against, Towles is the fact that he was recreating, manufacturing, and selling items that were trademarked and copyrighted by DC Comics, and he was doing so without a license. Does this mean that he will be found guilty of the violation of intellectual property? Probably — I mean based on what’s listed in the court transcripts and what’s easily found on the web, I’d say that he was definitely violating the laws of intellectual property, but the judge could see it a different way. Again, no decision for or against the man has been made. The judge simply allowed that the case be heard. So stop freaking out, you’re not going to jail unless you’ve been selling or giving away a whole lot of Batmobiles.
If you want to search for meaning within this court opinion, look at the case itself. I personally would like to believe that DC Comics will see the high demand for Batmobiles based on the existence of Gotham Garage, and will ultimately start granting licenses to manufacturers, because I totally want a Batmobile.
Disclaimer: Now, you may be wondering how I know any of this and why my article differs from those you’ve read on other sites, so I feel I should let you know that I’ve taken several copyright-based law courses in college, I’ve kept up-to-date with updates and changes to the law since, and I plan to go to law school in the next few years with a focus on intellectual property, so I have some basic understanding of what’s going on in this case. Also, for reference purposes, I spoke with a friend who specialized in patent, trademark, and copyright law as a legal student to verify my interpretation of fair use.
[Article Source: THR]
[Image Source: DC Comics]
[Court Opinion Source: Wired]
[Legal Source 1: Google Scholar]
[Legal Source 2: Google Scholar]
[Legal Source 3: Google Scholar]
[Lawsuit Details Source: RFC Express]