DC Comics v. Towle

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Copyright
  • Date Filed: 09-23-2015
  • Case #: 13-55484
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Ikuta for the Court; Circuit Judges Melloy and Bybee
  • Full Text Opinion

Authors of underlying works are entitled to sue third parties who make unauthorized copies of their derivative works, provided that the material copied derived from the underlying work.

Mark Towle manufactures replicas of the iconic Batmobile as it appears in the 1966 television series and the 1989 motion picture BATMAN and then sells the replicas for approximately $90,000. Towle also sells kits that allow the buyer to modify their car to look like the Batmobile and advertises his products as Batmobile replicas. In response, DC Comics filed suit, alleging copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition. The district court granted summary judgment in part to DC Comics, denied in part, and denied Towle’s cross-motion for summary judgment, prompting this appeal. The Ninth Circuit first determined that the Batmobile is copyrightable because it: (1) as physical and conceptual qualities; (2) is sufficiently delineated; and (3) is especially distinctive and contains some unique elements of expression. The panel further held that DC Comics owns a copyright interest in the Batmobile, despite the licensing agreements leading to the television show and movie, because DC Comics is the author of the underlying work, the movie and show are authorized derivative works, and the Batmobile is derived from the underlying work. Therefore, DC Comics is entitled to sue third parties who make unauthorized copies of the Batmobile. The panel found that Towle made unauthorized copies and infringed on DC’s patent, while rejecting Towle’s laches defense. “As Batman so eagerly told Robin, ‘[i]n our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential.’” D.C. Comics quoting Greenway Productions television broadcast March 23, 1966. AFFIRMED.

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