According to 9th Circuit Court Judge Sandra Ikuta, Bruce Wayne's Batmobile is, in fact, a copyrightable "automotive character" that DC comics owns the rights to.
The decision was handed down this week after the comics publisher took Mark Towle, a California-based mechanic, to court for selling realistic replicas of Batman's iconic vehicle from the classic '60s series and Tim Burton's Batman films. (He also sells cars from Speed Racer, apparently.)
For $90,000, Towle would provide paying customers with custom built Batmobiles that, unlike the vehicles driven by some real-world Batmen, closely resembled the cars designed by DC. Towle argued that while the Batmobile looks nothing like your average car it is, at its core, a "useful article," which is to say that it was more a tool than a work of art.
That defense may have held up if Towle was selling custom utility belts, but the courts didn't buy it. Because the Batmobile's consistent bat-motif is a direct reference to Batman, Ikuta reasoned, Towle was infringing on DC's intellectual property.
"This bat-like appearance has been a consistent theme throughout the comic books, television series, and motion picture," Ikuta wrote in her decision. "Even though the precise nature of the bat-like characteristics have changed from time to time."
Even if Towle had opted to sell replicas of the Batmobile from Christopher Nolan's trilogy, which was loosely based on real-world humvees, the court's decision would still have considered the mechanic to be breaking the law.
"No matter its specific physical appearance, the Batmobile is a 'crime-fighting' car with sleek and powerful characteristics that allow Batman to maneuver quickly while he fights villains," the judge said.
Though it's a largely inanimate object, Ikuta said, the Batmobile is just as much of an evolving character as Batman himself. As such, DC was well within its right to protect its asset.
"As Batman so sagely told Robin, 'In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential,'" states the opinion.