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Wozniak v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

District court grants summary judgment to Warner Bros. and DC Comics, holding that freelance artist who authored story that allegedly spawned  2022 film The Batman infringed DC Comics’ copyrights in various Batman works and characters.

Plaintiff Christopher Wozniak worked as a freelance artist for DC Comics between 1985 and 1999, intermittently creating comic book artwork for the company. For the artwork DC Comics accepted and bought, Wozniak and DC Comics entered contracts with a disclaimer providing that Wozniak’s work was derivative of preexisting material owned by DC Comics and that he would not acquire any rights in that preexisting material or the right to use such material except with DC Comics’ consent. 

In 1990, Wozniak authored a story about Batman and the Riddler, characters that were owned by DC Comics by virtue of the company’s ownership of various copyrighted works in which they appeared. Wozniak’s story featured an aging Batman facing off against the Riddler, a Batman villain first introduced to the Batman universe in 1948 and who, in Wozniak’s story, arranges “six trials” whose puzzles Batman must solve. In the course of the story, Batman believes that the Riddler has discovered his true identity, but this turns out to be false. In the final trial, the Riddler creates a virus designed to destroy the human race, but Batman retrieves an antidote. 

Between 1990 and 1999, Wozniak pitched the story to four DC Comics editors, but DC Comics declined to use it. Wozniak then changed the names of the DC Comics characters in his story and attempted to pitch it elsewhere, to no avail. In 2008, Wozniak submitted a copy of the story to Michael Uslan, who was listed as an executive producer on numerous Batman films, including, later, the 2022 film The Batman. Uslan was credited pursuant to a contract with Warner Bros.’ predecessor, which, as amended in 1988, required him to be credited as an executive producer on any future films released by Warner Bros. that included Batman characters. That agreement, however, did not provide for Uslan’s creative control of or involvement in such films, and he had no such involvement in the 2022 film.

That 2022 film, released by Warner Bros., features a much younger Batman facing off against the Riddler. Batman believes at one point in the film that the Riddler has discovered his true identity, but he later discovers this is false. The Riddler uses social media to radicalize followers and attempts to assassinate Gotham’s mayor-elect, but Batman defeats the Riddler and saves the mayor. After seeing the film, Wozniak applied to register his 1990 story with the Copyright Office, believing it had been used to create the film. On the copyright registration application, however, Wozniak left blank the field asking whether the work contained any preexisting material. 

Later that same year, Wozniak commenced an action against Warner Bros., alleging that The Batman infringed the copyright in his 1990 story. Warner Bros. denied copying and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the story was an unauthorized derivative work and that Wozniak’s claims were barred under the doctrine of unclean hands. DC Comics later intervened in the case and asserted two counterclaims against Wozniak, claiming that Wozniak’s story infringed a number of its copyrights and that Wozniak had committed copyright fraud when he registered the story with the Copyright Office without disclosing the preexisting material therein.

The district court granted DC Comics’ motion for summary judgment on its infringement claim, finding that the company had established it is the owner of valid copyrights of the Batman works and that Wozniak’s story was based on DC Comics’ copyrighted material, including the Batman character, Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, the Riddler, the Batmobile, the Batcave and Gotham City. Wozniak conceded that he had set out to create a “Batman story,” and the court held that the story was “rife with … Batman characters and story elements,” which was “fatal to Wozniak as to both actual copying and substantial similarity.”

Wozniak argued that he had DC Comics’ consent to copy the Batman characters and elements, as he was “encouraged” to pitch work involving these characters. However, the court found that at most, DC Comics consented to Wozniak’s using these characters to pitch artwork or scripts to DC Comics, not to create derivative works for his own personal use and exploitation. Wozniak also argued that DC Comics’ claim accrued in 1990 when he first pitched the story to one of its editors and so its copyright claim was barred by the statute of limitations. But the court held that Wozniak committed a separate act of infringement when he registered the story with the Copyright Office. The court held that uploading a deposit copy in 2022 constituted an unauthorized reproduction of the copyrighted work therein, even though the story was not reproduced or distributed publicly at that time. DC Comics’ claim against Wozniak, filed less than three years thereafter, was therefore timely.  

The court, however, denied DC Comics’ motion for summary judgment as to its copyright fraud claim, holding that although a jury could find that Wozniak knew he was obliged to report to the Copyright Office any preexisting copyrighted material within the story and failed to do so, summary judgment still was not warranted. Among other things, Wozniak had no legal training and was unrepresented when he filed his copyright application. As the court noted, Wozniak may have been ignorant as to the meaning of “preexisting material,” and the evidence did not conclusively establish a deliberate misrepresentation on his part. Likewise, Wozniak’s removal of references to Batman characters in pitches of the story to other companies did not conclusively establish knowledge that he could not use Batman characters; rather, it may have been that Wozniak believed other companies were not interested in Batman stories. Accordingly, in the court’s view, a triable issue of fact remained as to this claim.

The court also granted Warner Bros.’ motion for summary judgment dismissing Wozniak’s claims, holding that Warner Bros. had rebutted the presumption that Wozniak had a valid copyright to his story. Copyright protection could not extend to any part of the work that used DC Comics’ copyrighted material, and those elements pervaded the entire story, the court held. 

The court also held there was insufficient evidence of access or direct copying. No evidence existed that DC Comics transmitted a copy of the story to Warner Bros. or that Warner Bros. ever possessed a copy of the story. In any event, the court noted, Warner Bros. had limited input in the writing of The Batman, and Uslan had no creative involvement in the film. Accordingly, the court concluded that “[a] jury could find such access only based on speculation,” and there was no genuine triable issue of fact on this element.

Finally, as to those elements of the story not involving the Batman characters, the court held there was no substantial similarity. Any purported similarities between the works—e.g., a villain who is a loner serial killer, who seeks revenge on society by bringing about destruction, who leaves a series of “clues and riddles,” and who experiences a “moment of clarity or epiphany” propelling him to follow a path of crime—were standard tropes, too common to support a finding of substantial similarity.

Summary prepared by Frank D’Angelo and Erin Shields