Batmobile Copyright: Supreme Court Rules Against California Man Who Builds Replicas Of 1960s Prop

The Supreme Court has ruled in the Batmobile copyright case, and the news isn’t good for the California mechanic who builds and sells replicas of the iconic 1960s prop.

As Sport Act reports, for years, Mark Towle of Temecula, California, has been building replicas of the Batmobile — or at least, the version of the Batmobile that you would see in the 1960s Batman TV show or the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie. He sold the replica Batmobiles to collectors – for prices upwards of $90,000 each.

At least, Towle built and sold the replica Batmobiles until 2011, when DC Comics, which is a part of Warner Brothers, which owns the Batman franchise, sued.

Towle appealed, according to NewsMax, saying that the 1960s and 1989 Batmobiles belonged to an earlier ownership entity, and not Warner Brothers. He also argued that the Batmobile has appeared in so many forms, from the Adam West era in the 1960s through the Christian Bale era of the 2000s and beyond, that it can’t be considered a “character” that anyone owns. He also argued that his Batmobiles are “usable items” — that is, you can drive them on the street, rather than just collecting them as props — and thus, they’re not subject to copyright.

As the Batmobile copyright case began working its way up through the courts, Towles lost at every turn. Most recently in September, 2015, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld DC Comics’ claim of copyright protection. Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote the following at the time.

“As Batman so sagely told Robin, ‘In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential.’ Here, we conclude that the Batmobile character is the property of DC, and Towle infringed upon DC’s property rights when he produced unauthorized derivative works of the Batmobile as it appeared in the 1966 television show and the 1989 motion picture.”

Towle’s final appeal was heard by the Supreme Court, which issued its ruling this week.

Specifically, the Supreme Court did not actually rule on Towle’s case, but rather let stand, without comment, an earlier court ruling in DC Comics’ favor. That means that, for all intents and purposes, Towle has run out of appeals and must stop making Batmobile replicas immediately.

Mr. Towle is not the first person to find out the hard way that movie studios can be zealous in protecting their copyrights. As Salon reported in 2014, The Walt Disney Company is — or at least, used to be — so heavy-handed in their copyright enforcement as to be borderline abusive. For example, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 1989, lawyers from Disney asked three day care centers to remove murals of Disney characters from their walls, claiming copyright infringement.

So what made the House of Mouse lighten up on their zealous copyright enforcement? You can thank Frozen.

You’ll remember that Disney famously under-marketed the hit animated film, for which they had low expectations. You’ll also remember that YouTube blew up with people doing covers of Frozen’s signature song, “Let It Go.” Officially, all of those covers infringed on Disney’s copyright. However, Disney was getting something from those covers that they could have never dreamed of: free publicity, and free advertising. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, thanks in no small part to regular people infringing on Disney’s copyrights.

To this day, the Walt Disney Company’s lawyers generally look the other way at YouTube users covering their songs, whereas a decade ago they’d have ordered them taken down.

Unfortunately for Mark Towle, DC Comics and its parent company, Warner Brothers, don’t regard Batmobile replica cars as free advertising, and he’ll now have to stop.

[Photo by AP Photo/Keith Srakocic]