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Recent SDNY Opinion Unmasks Plaintiff as Villain in His Own Batman Lawsuit and Offers Refresher in Copyright Basics

As the flurry of lawsuits concerning the clash of AI and copyright protection continue to grab headlines, a recent opinion from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) offered a refresher in the basic contours of copyright doctrine and unmasked the plaintiff as the villain in his own lawsuit. 

In Wozniak v. Warner Bros., the SDNY handed Plaintiff Christopher Wozniak a sound defeat on his claim that the 2022 Warner Bros. film The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as the eponymous superhero, infringed on a story he wrote in the early 1990’s. Granting summary judgment for Warner Bros. and DC Comics—which owns the copyrights related to Batman—the Court not only rejected Wozniak’s claim that Warner Bros. copied his story, but it further held that Wozniak’s story was an unauthorized derivative work that infringed on DC’s copyrights.

Wozniak performed freelance work as a writer and illustrator for DC Comics from 1985 through 1999. His contract with DC included an express acknowledgement that his submissions to DC were derivative of copyrighted material owned by DC. Sometime in the early 1990’s Wozniak submitted a story to four different editors at DC in which Batman and Commissioner Gordon team up to defeat the Riddler, but the editors at DC declined to use it each time. 

Nearly thirty years later, in March 2022, the Warner Bros. film The Batman premiered. Based on a script by Matt Reeves, the movie grossed $772 million worldwide and earned an 85% “certified fresh” rating from critics according to Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing the film, Wozniak believed the movie infringed on his story. Wozniak registered his own story with the U.S. Copyright Office and then filed suit against Warner Bros., claiming that the major motion picture copied elements from and was structurally identical to his story.

The Court, though, found little basis for Wozniak’s copyright claim on either the access or the substantial similarity prongs of the infringement test. First, while DC Comics executives had access to Wozniak’s story in the early 1990’s, there is no evidence that Wozniak’s premise for a comic book was furnished by DC to Warner Bros., where a quarter-century later it was shared by Warner Bros. with Reeves and others who wrote the screenplay for The Batman. The Court described the alleged chain of events as “metaphysically possible” but “wholly speculative” and “improbable” based on the record. 

Second, Wozniak’s claim that the movie was substantially similar to his story suffered a similar fate. Although Wozniak claimed that the movie copied several elements from his story, once the Court filtered out the elements based on copyrighted material already owned by DC, Wozniak was left with a meager four elements he claimed Warner Bros. stole from him: (1) a loner, serial killer villain; (2) a villain who tries to gain revenge on society; (3) a villain who leaves clues and riddles; and (4) a villain who has a moment of clarity that propels him to crime. In dismissing these claims, the Court reminded Wozniak that basic plot points are not copyrightable under the scenes a faire doctrine, and pointed to several popular creative works containing those same elements, such as The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Psycho, most of the James Bond films, the Sherlock tv series, several Agatha Christie novels, Breaking Bad, and Star Wars, to name a few.

In addition to rejecting Wozniak’s claim of infringement against Warner Bros., the Court went further and held that Wozniak’s registration of his story with the U.S. Copyright Office was an infringement of DC’s copyrights for numerous characters, places, and even objects in the “Batman Universe.” DC Comics published the first Batman story in 1939 and since then has published comic books, magazines, and graphic novels developing Batman, as well as supporting characters, settings, and objects. Previous court decisions have held that the character of Batman, as well as associated characters and even the Batmobile itself, satisfy the sufficient delineation test for copyright protection. Therefore, because Wozniak acknowledged that he drew upon these elements of the Batman Universe, his story is an unauthorized derivative work that infringes on DC’s valid copyrights. In support, the Court cited well-known derivative work cases concerning the Rocky movies and the Seinfeld tv show, explaining that the entire premise of Wozniak’s story centers on copyrighted characters and copyrighted “fictional facts.”

Representatives for Wozniak have indicated that they are considering an appeal. For its part, Warner Bros. does not seem to have been too phased by the suit and is set to release a sequel entitled The Batman Part II in October 2025.


Wozniak v. Warner Bros. Ent. Inc., Case No. 22 Civ. 8969 (PAE), 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55146 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2024)

Sapon v. DC Comics, No. 00 Civ. 8992 (WHP), 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5395 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2002)

DC Comics v. Towle, 803 F.3d 1012 (9th Cir. 2015)

Anderson v. Stallone, Case No. 87-0592 WDK (Gx), 1989 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11109 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 26, 1989)

Castle Rock Ent., Inc. v. Carol Publ’g Grp., Inc., 150 F.3d 132 (2d Cir. 1998)