DC Comics, owner of registered copyrights in the Batman comic book character, sued Mark Towle, dba Gotham Garage, for copyright infringement for reproducing and distributing unauthorized and counterfeit Batmobile vehicles. Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, recently denied defendant Towle’s motion to dismiss DC Comics’ copyright claim.
The defendant filed a Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A Rule 12(b)(6) motion can be granted for “the lack of a cognizable legal theory or the lack of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.” (Order pdf page 2).
The court stated that
to establish a successful claim for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must establish the following: (1) plaintiff owns the copyright for the allegedly infringed material and (2) defendant violated at least one exclusive right granted to the copyright holder.
The court found that DC Comics pled enough facts to support both elements when it alleged that defendant was producing and selling unlicensed vehicle modification kits based on DC Comics’ copyrighted Batman property, including various versions of the Batmobile, a fictional automobile. Regarding copyright ownership, DC Comics pled that it created the Batman comic book character, has a business licensing its Batman copyrights to others, and owns “DC Comics Copyright Designs.” The court indicated that it could infer that DC Comics owns the copyrights for the Batmobiles in question. Regarding the violation of an exclusive right, the court ruled that DC Comics adequately alleged copyright infringement when it alleged that defendant manufactured, distributed and sold automobiles carrying DC Comics’ copyrighted designs.
Defendant further argued that DC Comics’ “copyright infringement claim should be dismissed because the Batmobile and all its variations are not copyrightable objects as a matter of law.” (Order pdf page 4). The defendant essentially asked the court to rule that the Batmobile could not be protected by copyright law under any set of circumstances. The court indicated that although defendant is correct in asserting that the Copyright Act does not protect “useful articles” or items, such as automobiles, that have an intrinsic utilitarian function, defendant’s argument ignores the exception to the “useful article” rule.
The exception to the useful article rule is that copyright law will protect “non-functional, artistic elements of an automobile design that can be physically or conceptually separated from the automobile.” (Order pdf page 5). The court indicated that it could reasonably infer from the facts pled in the complaint that the Batmobile may have non-functional artistic elements that could be separated from its utilitarian aspects. In other words, an object can include both unprotectable elements that serve a utilitarian function and non-functional, artistic elements that are protected by copyright law. Copyright protection in this situation is not an all or nothing proposition.
The non-moving party is entitled to have all reasonable inferences drawn in its favor in a motion to dismiss. As the non-moving party, DC Comics was so entitled.
As such, the Court finds that the Batmobile and all of its relevant embodiments are not, as a matter of law, excluded from copyright protection.
(Order pdf page 5).
This case is DC Comics v. Mark Towle, dba Gotham Garage, Central District of California, CV 11-3934 RSWL.