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OFF BEAT: Copyright infringement is Batman's newest nemesis


Batman might be able to protect Gotham City all on his own, but he needed the help of a federal judge to protect the copyright to his famous ride.

In May, DC Comics Inc. sued Temecula, Calif.-based custom-car maker Mark Towle in a Los Angeles Southern District court for building and selling imitation Batmobiles, claiming that his businesses was illegally profiting on designs owned by the comic book publisher, according to a Wired Magazine report.

On his website, Mr. Towle advertises working replicas of three Batmobile designs: the 1966 version driven by Adam West, the 1989 version driven by Michael Keaton, and the 1996 version driven by Val Kilmer.

According to court documents, Mr. Towle had asked U.S. District Judge Ronald S. W. Lew to dismiss the case, contending that the cars did not violate DC’s copyright by virtue of the “useful articles” provision of the federal law. That provision exempts objects that have a utilitarian function other than conveying information or expression, such as cars.

However, Judge Lew rejected Mr. Towle’s argument, noting that the provision does not apply to aesthetic elements of useful articles.

“Mr. Towle is correct that, in general, the Copyright Act affords no protection to ‘useful articles’ or items with an intrinsic utilitarian function such as automobiles,” Judge Lew wrote in his ruling. “His argument, however, ignores the exception to the ‘useful article’ rule, which grants copyright protection to nonfunctional, artistic elements of an automobile design that can be physically or conceptually separated from the automobile.”

DC’s lawsuit accuses Mr. Towle and his company, Gotham Garage, of copyright and trademark infringement, and is seeking a permanent injunction barring future production of the cars, an order forcing Mr. Towle to turn over all potentially infringing parts and materials, and monetary damages of at least $2.6 million, according to court documents.