The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit recently heard the appeal of a trademark infringement suit arising out of Christopher Nolan’s 2012 blockbuster film The Dark Knight Rises, the latest installment of films featuring Gotham City’s Caped Crusader known as Batman along with other characters from the DC Comics universe. One such character, Catwoman, is portrayed in The Dark Knight Rises as attempting to use sophisticated hacking software to erase evidence of her criminal past from every computer and database throughout the world. While the software depicted in the movie, referred to as “the clean slate,” is entirely fictional, one e-security company brought a trademark infringement suit against Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., alleging that sales of its real-life desktop restoration product called “Clean Slate” declined after audiences witnessed Catwoman using “the clean slate” for an improper purpose.The case was dismissed by the District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, which was affirmed by the 7th Circuit on appeal. In trademark infringement suits, courts consider the likelihood of consumer confusion; that is, whether the improper use of a trademark would cause the reasonable consumer to believe that both the legitimate and infringing uses of the mark originated from the same producer. While the plaintiff did register “Clean Slate” as a trademark, the court in this case found that even “unusually gullible hypothetical consumers” could not reasonably believe that Warner Bros. was actually licensing a “diabolical hacking tool” in connection with The Dark Knight Rises. Additionally, the court noted that Warner Bros. doesn’t even manufacture or sell software, making it very unlikely that a consumer in this instance would identify real and fictional goods of the same name as having originated from the same source.
While the use of the fictional “clean slate” software may not have been sufficient to prevent the sly and wily Selina Kyle from assuming the Catwoman persona, it was more than enough to draw a trademark infringement suit directed at Warner Bros. Entertainment in what is just the most recent example of sophisticated parties bringing intellectual property issues to the forefront of entertainment law. Holy trademark, Batman!