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Transportation Technology

The Copyright Battle Over Custom-Built Batmobiles 194

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Eriq Gardner writes that Warner Brothers is suing California resident Mark Towle, a specialist in customizing replicas of automobiles featured in films and TV shows, for selling replicas of automobiles from the 1960s ABC series Batman by arguing that copyright protection extends to the overall look and feel of the Batmobile. The case hinges on what exactly is a Batmobile — an automobile or a piece of intellectual property? Warner attorney J. Andrew Coombs argues in legal papers that the Batmobile incorporates trademarks with distinctive secondary meaning and that by selling an unauthorized replica, Towle is likely to confuse consumers about whether the cars are DC products are not. Towle's attorney Larry Zerner, argues that automobiles aren't copyrightable. 'It is black letter law that useful articles, such as automobiles, do not qualify as "sculptural works" and are thus not eligible for copyright protection,' writes Zerner adding that a decision to affirm copyright elements of automotive design features could be exploited by automobile manufacturers. 'The implications of a ruling upholding this standard are easy to imagine. Ford, Toyota, Ferrari and Honda would start publishing comic books, so that they could protect what, up until now, was unprotectable.'"
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The Copyright Battle Over Custom-Built Batmobiles

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  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Thursday January 03, 2013 @09:19AM (#42460905) Homepage

    Vehicles from the 1940s through 1970s, and into the 80s? Sure they are - or can be, at least.

    But pretty much every automobile today is just a stylized wind tunnel tested form. They're somewhat more unique than the crap from about a decade ago and have unique bumpers, grills, etc. but for the most part there's little to distinguish them from each other, with rare exception. VW is making cars that look like Porche; BMW is making cars that look like Cadillac; and so on.

    The original Batmobile (from the 60s show)? I'm sorry, but even as a kid it was pretty obvious there wasn't much distinctive about the car. They put some stylized fins on it, painted it like his underwear, and put a cockpit and jet propulsion on it to say "look, it goes fast". Sorry. That's like saying an iPhone is art: how, exactly, does it deviate from commonly expected definitions of whatever it serves functionally? It doesn't.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 03, 2013 @09:29AM (#42460965)

    As an art student, your opinion is irrelevant. A car is not a work of art. This is not subject to interpretation: what is and what is not a work of art is strictly defined by law. Otherwise, the law would be ripe for abuse, since any product of human manufacture can be argued to include some form of human expression and thus could be interpreted as art. Art has special protection by copyright due to special-purpose laws and it is very important to clearly define what is and what is not covered by them, regardless of the fairness or not of those laws.

  • by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Thursday January 03, 2013 @09:34AM (#42460993)

    Your insinuation that only lawyers are entitled to an opinion on the application of copyright is misguided. Understanding copyright is everybody's business. Unless you never write a line of code or post to a blog or Twitter, copyright's ever-widening reach ensnares you, too. Know the basics, or risk finding yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

    Obviously, the more financial stake you have in the output of your keyboard, the more research and expert consultation you'll require.

    If you disagree with grandparent, argue on the merits of his/her interpretation.

  • by Andy_R ( 114137 ) on Thursday January 03, 2013 @10:09AM (#42461289) Homepage Journal

    If this lawsuit does establish a new intellectual property right, Warner could be in big trouble.

    The 1966 Batmobile is a modified Lincoln Futura concept car from 1955. As this is a brand new type of property right, it's unlikely that George Barris who bought the concept car and modified it to make the Batmobile ever bought the 'sculpture' rights to it, so the rights would revert to the 'sculptor' of the original car, the Ford Motor Company. If they win, Warner could not stop clones, as Ford would be the rights holder, not Warner... and Ford would be able to bill Warner for the use of their 'sculpture' in all the toys, films, TV shows that have used it over the years.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday January 03, 2013 @10:19AM (#42461375)
    Automakers do not have to copyright their designs, they trademark aspects of them. They also patent aspects of them, and generally only defend those patents and trademarks when others attempt to build new vehicles of mass production.

    This gentleman is reproducing something by modifying an existing car to look like another modified car. DC nor the TV producers built the car from scratch, they modified a design for a concept car from Ford [] using existing Ford chassis to make their batmobile. Arguably, theirs is a derivative work in of itself, which should significantly reduce their ability to claim harm from others also making derivative works.

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