DC Comics v. Towle (C.D. Cal., Feb 7, 2013):
Other than its physical features, the Batmobile is depicted as being swift, cunning, strong and elusive. For example, in the comic book Batman #5, the Batmobile “leaps away and tears up the street like a cyclone.” Joint Stip., Ex. 2, at 75. In the same comic book, the Batmobile is analogized to an “impatient steed straining at the reigns,” shivering “as its supercharged motor throbs with energy . . . and an instant later it tears after the fleeing hoodlums.” Id. at 76. The Batmobile participates in various chases and is deployed to combat Batman’s enemies. The comic books portray the Batmobile as a superhero. The Batmobile is central to Batman’s ability to fight crime and appears as Batman’s sidekick, if not an extension of Batman’s own persona.
This case is analogous to Toho Co., Ltd. v. William Morrow and Co., Inc., 33 F.Supp. 2d 1206, 1215 (C.D. Cal. 1998), which involved the “Godzilla” character, a giant lizard featured in action films. Although Godzilla assumed many shapes and personalities in the various Godzilla films, the Court found that “Godzilla has developed a constant set of traits that distinguish him/her/it from other fictional characters,” meriting it copyright protection. Id.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court finds that the Batmobile is a character entitled to copyright protection.
Kitt from Knight Rider is a character. The 1928 Porter from My Mother the Car is a character. The Love Bug is a character. Christine is a character. But those cars were, in their own ways, at least semi-conscious. I am no DC Comics expert. Can the Batmobile talk? Can it think? Is it self-aware?
If a car has a persona, then does it have a right of publicity?
Two words: In. Sane.
Insane is one word. Unless you’re trying to convey the notion that the Batmobile being a character is in line with sanity and therefore acceptable in some measure or form, then cheers!
Here’s another interesting bit from the opinion at FN4:
Defendant’s focus on whether the Batmobile is an inanimate object is also misplaced in light of the fact that at least one other court has afforded copyright protection to an inanimate object belonging to a specific movie character. In New Line Cinema Corp. v. Russ Berrie & Co.,, 161 F.Supp. 2d 293 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), the court found that an inanimate object associated with a fictional character was entitled to copyright protection. In New Line Cinema, a toy distributor sold a toy glove that looked like the glove worn by Freddy Kreuger of the Nightmare on Elm Street motion pictures. New Line Cinema Corp., 161 F. Supp. 2d at 294. The court held that the glove was entitled to copyright protection based on New Line’s copyright protection in the Freddy Krueger character because “[c]opyright protection is extended to the component part of the character which significantly aids in identifying the character.” Id. at 302 (citing New Line Cinema Corp. v. Easter Unlimited, Inc., 17 U.S.P.Q.2d 1631, 1633 (E.D.N.Y. 1989); Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Inc. v. Pussycat Cinema, Ltd., 604 F.2d 200, 204 (2d Cir. 1979)).
I don’t know — I don’t like the idea of copyright in characters at all. I think a character can be a substantial part of a work’s expression, but I think it’s analytically wrong to frame copying a character as a question of “copyright in characters”. But if you accept that (as I suppose a district court must at this point), then Freddy’s glove infringing on Freddy’s character is quite a different question from a copyright in Freddy’s glove. And one district court, especially one in another circuit, does not bind this district court. So quickly dismissing in a footnote the defendant’s objection that “an inanimate object is not a character” seems wrong to me. (And I think the popular reaction supports that.)