Fan Fiction Copyrightable No

Fan Fiction: Copyrightable? No!

 

On March 27, 2024, New York federal Judge Paul A. Engelmayer granted Warner Bros. and DC Comics motions for summary judgment in a copyright infringement claim regarding the 2022 film “The Batman.”

Plaintiff Christopher Wozniak is a comic book artist who claims he wrote a Batman story while working freelance for DC Comics in 1990. Wozniak’s story takes place in Gotham and centers around Batman seeking justice against the Riddler for spreading a deadly virus throughout the city. Wozniak’s story also references other key Batman universe characters like Alfred the Butler, the Joker, and Harley Quinn. Wozniak “pitched it” to DC Comics in 1990 but they rejected it.

Wozniak’s Batman story was never published. However, following the release of “The Batman” in 2022, Wozniak, shocked by the similarities between his story and the film, filed for and received registration from the Copyright Office. Wozniak then sued Warner Bros. in October 2022, alleging copyright infringement. Wozniak claimed “The Batman” film and his story were structurally identical and both contained the same “sequence of events.” While Wozniak’s claim may have been strong had he independently created the story from scratch, he did not. His story used the pre-existing Batman world, without permission. Therefore, he had no rights to his story under copyright law.

To receive copyright protection, a work must be independently created. To be independently created means to come from the author’s own ideas and not be derived from some other source. While characters are not listed as a copyrightable category in the Copyright Act, courts have found characters to be protectable when they have some unique aspects to them and are sufficiently delineated to the point where a reasonable viewer would recognize the character no matter where they appear. No matter how creative and original the plot, dialogue, or events in Wozniak’s story were, they are not protectable because they center around copyrighted characters that he did not have authorization to use. Only the copyright owner is authorized to make derivative works, and a story using well established characters is a classic example of a derivative work.

Judge Engelmayer rejected Wozniak’s claim that characters are merely made up of short phrases like names and titles, which generally are not protectable. Additionally, Judge Engelmayer noted that the Batman universe is entitled to strong copyright protection because of its expansive history and quantity of stories.

Ultimately, by failing to introduce any evidence that DC Comics authorized him to create a Batman story and use it for his own exploits, Wozniak failed to show that he himself was not the actual infringer.

Wozniak is represented by R. Terry Parker of the Law Office of R. Terry Parker.

Warner Bros. and DC Comics are represented by James D. Weinberger, Kimberly B. Frumkin, and Andrew Nietes of Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu PC.

The case is Christopher Wozniak v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., case number 1:22-cv-08969, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is a boutique entertainment and business law firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The firm has extensive experience handling cases involving copyright law, having provided top-quality legal services to its clients since 1991. The Firm is recognized for its many achievements, including successfully litigating many high-profile cases.

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