Just as no comic-book character has ever spawned quite as many vehicles as Batman, no custom car has ever been more copied by shade-tree builders than popular Batmobiles, from the George Barris TV era through the Michael Keaton years and including the modern Tumbler. All of which could be open to copyright infringement claims from DC Comics if a federal judge's ruling stands.
Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics and all things Batman, had sued Gotham Garage earlier this year in a California court, claiming the custom-car builder was churning out ersatz Batmobiles that could be confused as officially licensed. Gotham Garage asked for the case to be thrown out, noting that copyright law does not protect "useful items" -- which typically includes automobiles.
But in a ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew found that DC Comics could pursue its suit, under an exception that allows for copyright on artistic flourishes to everyday items.
"There may be non-functional artistic elements of the Batmobile that may possibly be separated from the utilitarian aspect of the automobile," Lew wrote, allowing the case to proceed.
Gotham Garage can still fight the case, and could argue that since so many copies of the various Batmobiles exist without challenge from DC Comics, the copyright has been weakened to the breaking point. But if DC Comics prevails, many proud drivers of copycat Batmobiles will face a few dark nights.