Copyright protection of fictional characters: is it possible? how far can it go?

The IPKat's favourite fictional character
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Associate Professor Yann Basire (Director-General of CEIPI) to participate in a great (and cool!) conference he organized in Strasbourg on Pop Culture and IP. The topic I was asked to discuss was trade mark protection of fictional characters, and the contribution will be published in 2020 as part of a collection edited by Yann and entitled Propriété Intellectuelle et Pop Culture (LexisNexis, coll. IRPI).

But what about copyright protection of fictional characters: is it possible? how far could it go?

Copyright protection is available to any work in a Berne and, now, EU sense. While no particular issues arise in relation to the literary, artistic or dramatic works that feature certain characters, in that they are regarded as ‘traditional’ copyright subject matter, whether copyright also vests in fictional characters as such has occasionally proved controversial. 

Difficulties are linked to the fact that, first, one might wonder whether a character is to be considered a ‘work’ in a copyright sense and, secondly, assuming that it is, what type of work a character is. While the latter appears to be less fundamental question than the former, it might still be a problematic one to answer in those European jurisdictions that envisage an exhaustive list of protectable works. 

A ‘work’ that is sufficiently ‘original’

There is no statutory definition of ‘work’ in EU copyright directives, including the InfoSoc Directive.

However, recently the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) tackled the notion of ‘work’ in its judgment in Levola Hengelo [Katposts here] (the CJEU confirmed its findings in that case in its more recent decision in Cofemel [Katposts here]).  

Noting that the InfoSoc Directive provides both a set of exclusive rights relating, in the case of authors, to their ‘works’ and relevant exceptions and limitations to such rights but makes no express reference to the laws of individual Member States for the purpose of determining the meaning and scope of the concept of a ‘work’, such concept is to be considered an autonomous concept of EU law. As such, it is to be given a uniform application throughout the EU, in compliance with the principle of autonomy of EU law. 

As I also discuss here, this conclusion on the side of the CJEU is not surprising, also considering its frequent use in copyright case law: the CJEU has indeed often employed this interpretative standard in its copyright case law, with the practical effect of strengthening harmonization of copyright laws across the EU.

The CJEU considered that two cumulative conditions must be satisfied for subject matter to be classified as a ‘work’ within the meaning of the InfoSoc Directive. First, the subject matter concerned must be original in the sense that it is the author’s own intellectual creation, in accordance with the decision in Infopaq and subsequent case law. Second, only something which is the expression of the author’s own intellectual creation may be classified as a ‘work’ within the meaning of that directive. Recalling both the wording of Article 2(1) of the Berne Convention and the idea/expression dichotomy in Articles 2 of the WIPO Copyright Treaty and 9(2) of the TRIPs Agreement, the Court concluded that
for there to be a ‘work’ as referred to in Directive 2001/29, the subject matter protected by copyright must be expressed in a manner which makes it identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity, even though that expression is not necessarily in permanent form.
In the case of a fictional character, the definition of ‘work’ may be satisfied when the character at issue appears in a single work and its features are identifiable in accordance with the CJEU criteria. The assessment, however, might be potentially more complex when the character is one with a longstanding history and which has appeared and changed to some extent over time. Would it be possible to identify with sufficient precision and objectivity the protectable expression which renders such character a ‘work’? 

Under US law, the answer appears to be in the affirmative, insofar as certain requirements are satisfied. In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was called to decide whether defendant Mark Towle had infringed DC Comics’ exclusive rights under a copyright when he built and sold replicas of the Batmobile, as it appeared in the 1966 television show Batman and the 1989 film BATMAN. “Holy copyright law, Batman!”, noted Circuit Judge Ikuta at the beginning of his opinion. 

The court considered whether the Batmobile itself could a protected character under US law by adopting a 3-part test: 
  1. the character must generally have physical as well as conceptual qualities; 
  2. the character must be sufficiently delineated to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears (this requires the presence of identifiable character traits and attributes, but the character does not need to have a consistent appearance); 
  3. the character must be especially distinctive and contain some unique elements of expression, meaning that it cannot be a stock character such as a magician in standard magician garb. Even when a character lacks sentient attributes and does not speak (like a car), it can be a protectable character if it meets this standard.
Applying this test, to the case at issue, the court concluded that the Batmobile would be protected by copyright and that the defendant had infringed it. 

It appears that, even if this test is only directly applicable under US law, it could be useful also in a European context. We could indeed consider that fulfilment of all requirements of the test is substantially what is required under EU law to identify a ‘work’ that is sufficiently ‘original’. Indeed, whilst the first and third step seem to relate to the originality of the character and, thus, what makes it its ‘author’s own intellectual creation’, the result of their ‘free and creative choices’ and ultimately what carries their ‘personal touch’, the second step entails the consideration of whether such character is “identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity” and is, thus, a ‘work’ in the sense clarified in Levola Hengelo

A work of the ‘right kind’

In European jurisdictions that envisage a closed list of protectable subject matter, an additional difficulty surrounding copyright protection of fictional characters relates to their classification: what types of works are they? A question of this kind, whose compatibility with EU law (or, rather: CJEU case law) is highly questionable, remains formally a fundamental one to answer, in that impossibility to determine what category a work belongs to (usually) leads to a finding that copyright protection is not possible. 

So, under UK law (a jurisdiction in which copyright protection is only available to a limited number of works), leading commentaries explain that a ‘work’ is "a thing which satisfies the statutory description of a literary, dramatic, etc. work."

Such ‘thing’ must be, first, a production in the Berne sense and, second, fall within one of the categories provided by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). Categorization has implications not just for determining whether a certain work may be actually protected by copyright under UK law, but also what rights attach to such work. So, for instance, section 21(1) CDPA excludes the right of adaptation for artistic works, while providing expressly for it in relation to literary, dramatic and musical works. Similarly, section 17(3) includes conversion of a work into a three-dimensional form within the scope of the right of reproduction only for artistic works, not also literary works. In addition, differences between the various categories subsist also in relation to the topic of infringement. While copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work may be infringed without copying the medium on which the work was recorded by the author or published by the publisher, copyright in sound recordings, broadcasts, published editions and films may only be infringed by reproducing the medium produced by the author. 

In UK copyright case law, there have been a few instances in which works have been denied copyright protection due to the very impossibility of placing such works within one of the categories provided by the CDPA. Examples include the assembly of a scene (the scene was that which would be photographed for the cover of Oasis’s Be Here Now album) and the Stormtrooper Helmet from the Star Wars films. Until recently, uncertainties have also surrounded the protectability of TV formats by means of copyright, due to uncertain categorization thereof [Katpost here]

The same difficulties of categorization seem likely to subsist also in relation to fictional characters: are they a literary work? a dramatic work? an artistic work? 

All this said, as mentioned, it is highly questionable whether an approach of this kind is (still) allowed under EU law. Most recently, in Cofemel, the CJEU considered that the notion of work solely presupposes the fulfilment of two cumulative requirements: first, it implies the existence of an original object, in the sense that said object is the intellectual creation of its author; second, the notion of work is reserved to those elements which are the expression of such creation. When an object is a ‘work’ in this sense, “it shall be eligible, in this respect, for copyright protection, in compliance with Directive 2001/29”. 

All this rather clearly suggests that no other criteria can be imposed to determine copyright subsistence, not even the requirement that the work at issue is one of the right kind. This conclusion is also in line with certain enlightened UK case law, which has noted how – in light of a number of CJEU rulings – it may be arguable that it is not a fatal objection to a claim that copyright subsists in a particular work that the work is not one of the kinds of work listed in section 1(1)(a) CDPA and defined elsewhere in that Act. Nevertheless, it remains clear that the putative copyright work must be a literary or artistic work within the meaning of Article 2(1) of the Berne Convention.

Which and how many copyrights?

Copyright protection of a character (if available) is in principle limited in time; in Europe, it will last for the life of the author and seventy years after their death. This means that in principle, upon falling in the public domain, it will become possible to use a character without the need for a licence to, eg, create a new adaptation of the story featuring said character. 

So, if we take the example of Sleeping Beauty in the version by Charles Perrault (as also subsequently collected and printed by the Brothers Grimm), both the story and the characters are no longer protected by copyright. However, subsequent adaptations of the public domain stories would warrant their own copyright protection, insofar as they are original. 

The same is true with regard to the relevant characters: so, if we apply the criteria mentioned above, this means that, eg, Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty as a character with a certain appearance and personality would enjoy its self-standing copyright protection and the same would be true of Dreamworks’s own version, which also has an original appearance and personality. Insofar as no original features of a copyright-protected character are reproduced, it remains possible to use a third-party character to create, eg, new adaptations of well-known story. 


Different IP rights are available for the protection of fictional characters. As far as copyright is concerned, doubts may subsist regarding the classification of characters as self-standing works which enjoy copyright protection separate from the works in which they are contained. In addition, copyright protection is limited in time and encompasses the external appearance of such characters. 

Other types of IP rights, including trade mark protection, might thus present a certain attractiveness, due to the fact that (in the case of trade marks) protection could be virtually perpetual and relate to elements that are not necessarily connected with the external appearance of the character (eg, their name). 

However, it is doubtful whether trade mark registration could be effectively pursued in each and every instance, particularly on consideration of the applicability of the absolute grounds for refusal or invalidity concerning distinctiveness, public policy and morality and aesthetic functionality. In addition, the scope of protection – where available – would go only as far as allowing the trade mark owner to repress third-party uses of identical or similar signs, insofar as such uses are uses in a trade mark sense and affect the functions of the registered trade mark (the latter is true also in double identity scenarios, as the CJEU considered in Arsenal). 

All this suggests that the most effective way to protect a fictional character through IP is a comprehensive strategy that relies on different rights allowing the pursuit of different objectives of exclusivity, but is also conscious of the limitations that are inherent to each and every right.
Copyright protection of fictional characters: is it possible? how far can it go? Copyright protection of fictional characters: is it possible? how far can it go? Reviewed by Eleonora Rosati on Thursday, November 28, 2019 Rating: 5


  1. Hi Eleonora,

    Do you by any chance have a link to an IPkitten article that discusses trade mark protection of fictional characters?


    1. I've not published it on IPKat - it will be included in Yann Basire's edited collection. If you send me an email, if'd be happy to share the draft with you


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