Whether people watch it because of their astounding work, their magnetic cast, or simply for entertainment purposes, the truth is that “Car Masters: Rust To Riches” has done a good job at becoming one of the most popular car restoration shows airing on TV nowadays.
However, for a show almost entirely devoid of drama on screen, it’s surprising to know that its main star Mark Towle has had some serious real-life issues involving his business, a big company, and some copyright laws.
So whatever occurred between Mark Towle’s business Gotham Garage and Warner Bros? Why was he sued, and whatever happened to that case? Stay with us to know all about the lawsuit against Gotham Garage, and many other less known facts about “Car Masters”.
Was Gotham Garage Sued?
It’s not unusual for reality TV stars to be involved in some type of legal problem, and it’s no different for Mark Towle. As it happens, his business Gotham Garage was indeed sued by Warner Bros’ subsidiary DC Comics back in 2011, for selling replicas of cars supposedly based on the Batmobiles from popular productions of the “Batman” franchise from 1966 and 1989, which according to court papers, constituted an infringement of Copyright Laws.
As reported by The IP Law Blog, the Central District Court of California ‘noted that Gotham Garage did not contest Warner Bros’ trademark claims, and did not dispute that it manufactured and distributed parts and accessories featuring the Batman trademarks’, on top of Mark Towle alleging that his replicas sold for $90,000 each, were based on the aforementioned productions, but didn’t copy every feature.
It was also noted that prior to the lawsuit, Mark had advertised his replicas with names directly related to the franchise, including Batmobile, and a website with a similar name, which was potentially confusing for customers, and ultimately considered a capitalization ‘on the goodwill associated with the “Batman” trademarks’ by the court, which went in hand with Mark’s admission of being questioned by clients about his connection with DC Comics.
Who Won The Lawsuit?
Gotham Garage and Mark Towle’s defended themselves with the argument that the Batmobile wasn’t the subject of copyright laws, as cars fall under the category of ‘useful articles’, which aren’t copyrightable under US law. As stated by Mark’s lawyer Larry Zerner, applying copyright infringement laws to a vehicle could have a severe negative impact, as manufacturers could potentially ‘start publishing comic books so that they could protect what, up until now, was unprotectable’.
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However, the court determined that the Batmobile wasn’t a simple vehicle, and was instead a character from the “Batman” franchise, thus considering it intellectual property of DC Comics and Warner Bros. The court noted that the Batmobile preserved some physical characteristics throughout its several portrayals in the media, that it was recognizable enough as part of the “Batman” universe: ‘The fact that the unauthorized Batmobile replicas that the Defendant manufactured, which are derivative works, may be ‘useful articles’ is irrelevant’, as ruled by Judge Ronald Lew in 2015, who also stated that simplifying the Batmobile as a mere car ignored the ‘the creativity and fantastical elements’ of the character.
So, it was ruled that Mark Towle had infringed copyright laws by copying the Batmobile in his car replicas, though it’s unclear if financial compensation was due on his part.
Was Mark Sued Again?
While his legal battle against Warner Bros for the right to build a Batmobile replica is undoubtedly the hardest one faced by Mark Towle so far, it isn’t the only time he’s been in court for something related to the Defender of Gotham City.
As it happens, Mark was also sued by Scott Lee for scamming. Everything goes back to 2007, when Lee was contacted by Gotham Garage to build the company’s website, in order to obtain a Batmobile kit. On top of that, Lee paid Gotham Garage $5,000, but by the time his contract ended in 2010, he was apparently convinced to sign another contract and paid the business $3,000 extra to buy a Corvette for his kit. As stated by Lee, the resources necessary to finish the website weren’t accessible to him, thus making him unable to complete his work and obtain his kit, while at the same time threatening to sue him: ‘for four years my work was displayed for Mark Towle to sell $90,000 replicas, while he stalled completion of the project, and held most of my work captive on his servers’, he told The Journal in 2016.
What Did It Result In?
In an unexpected move, in 2011, Scott Lee was sued by Mark Towle for ‘unlimited damages’. Prompted to file a counter lawsuit, Lee managed to get Mark’s lawsuit dismissed, but his own case didn’t go forward, as Towle apparently denied being involved with the website creation.
Then established in West Virginia, Lee contracted a Lawyer in California, who apparently wasn’t of any help. That’s when he chose to take matters into his own hands, and educated himself in order to become his own lawyer: ‘I thought if I wanted something done, I’d have to do it on my own’, Lee stated.
To counter sue Mark, Lee had to travel to California several times, which took a toll on his finances. However, he wasn’t ready to give up, and after a long legal battle, in August 2016 Scott Lee was awarded $35,000 and compensation for court fees and travel costs by the Superior Court of California.
The legal battle was described by Lee as a ‘David vs. Goliath story’, due to the adversity and insults coming his way: ‘They used to call me a dumb hillbilly living in a log cabin in West Virginia while they were threatening to sue me, but I won’, he stated. While this case doesn’t give Gotham Garage a good image, Lee’s story is surely memorable and inspiring.
Were There Other Lawsuits?
Unbeknownst to most people, Mark Towle was facing a third lawsuit at the same time when he was in a legal battle with Warner Bros and Scott Lee. In 2009, Mark Towle and his business partner Kory Geick were sued by a New Orleans’ man named Michael Hunt, the latter alleging that he’d commissioned Gotham Garage a car which hadn’t been completed, let alone delivered to him.
According to initial reports, Hunt had paid $85,000 for a car which was apparently meant to be auctioned for New Orleans Children’s Hospital. Although both parties had agreed that the vehicle was going to be completed before the auction in October 2008, Hunt alleged that Mark had failed to not only finish the job, but also hadn’t given him any information about his vehicle. The case was supposedly settled under a non-disclosure agreement, but it’s known that Mark agreed to repay Hunt.
What Happened To Gotham Garage?
While it’s unknown if Scott Lee had to deliver the finished website to Gotham Garage, it’s for sure that Mark Towle’s business was unable to further manufacture and advertise any type of replicas of the Batmobile, following the case’s ruling in 2015.
However, despite facing so many legal battles simultaneously, Gotham Garage not only kept afloat but also didn’t lose much of its popularity. In fact, the business was on the radar of producer Robin Michael, who contacted Mark Towle after an idea to create a car show for Netflix was taking form. That being said, the initial idea for “Car Masters” was pretty different to what we see in the show nowadays, but upon finally meeting Mark and knowing what Gotham Garage was about, Michael shaped the show to fit them, as Mark said in an interview with Speedway Motors in 2021.
While Gotham Garage’s success is unquestionable, things haven’t changed that much for Mark: ‘it’s basically what I’ve been doing every day for 21 years as a business’, he affirmed, also adding that fame also puts a heavy load on his shoulders: ‘it’s a blessing and a curse, because it’s a lot of work’, he admitted.
How Did Gotham Garage Start?
Even if “Car Masters” has aired many episodes since its premiere in 2018, the truth is that the origin of Gotham Garage is barely talked about on screen.
Fortunately, Mark Towle was thoughtful enough to shed some light on this subject in an interview with Speedway Motors. According to him, in 1999 he had been working on custom building replicas of the Mach Five, an automobile driven in the Japanese series “Speed Racer” by the character of the same name. Mark’s replicas were popular enough to give him tons of work for months, but it wasn’t until a client named Russ Martin asked him to build a Batmobile replica from the 1966 “Batman” TV series, that the business changed forever. Mark built a Batmobile kit for that first project, soon gaining local fame for it.
Interestingly enough. Mark’s shop was initially named Mach 5 Factory, but was changed to Gotham Garage after his Batmobile became popular. However, he also confirmed that the references to Gotham City in the name are also inspired by the East Coast, the history of cars in the US, his fascination with fiction, and specializing in ‘out of the box’ projects in his shop.
Who Is Mark Towle?
It’s a common denominator for car enthusiasts to have always been interested in the automotive world, from a young age. While that applies to Mark Towle, his upbringing was a little more complicated. As a kid in a big family with a single mother, one of his hobbies was looking out for damaged and incomplete toys dumped by other people, later redesigning them for his enjoyment.
Mark’s ‘dumpster diving’ escapades resulted in him developing enough skills to mold and rebuild articles to his liking, eventually improving that ability to modify bigger and more complicated gadgets as time passed. His true calling in life came years later when he bought his first car, a 1965 Pontiac GTO which cost him $100, and ‘barely made it home’, as he told Speedway Motor: ‘that was all I could afford, and then I just started fixing it’.
Needless to say, Mark walked his own path in the automotive field. Long before “Master Cars” premiered, he specialized in making props for features in movies and TV shows such as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Kamen Rider Dragon Knight”. Ultimately, what sets him apart from other builders is his endless desire to challenge himself creatively and skill-wise.
The Show’s Best Builds
Despite still being a relatively new show, “Car Masters” has given car enthusiasts a lot to see.
Starting with a classic, Mark Towle remembered his origins by building one of his famous Mach 5 replicas from the legendary “Speed Racer” series. The car’s body from a C4 Corvette fits extremely well, but some adjustments to its size and shape were in order, to make this rebuild possible, and the resulting vehicle looks right from the future.
While at first sight it’s normal to assume the shop’s staff only dares to work on unusual designs, they’ve also done an excellent job at rebuilding some classics, such as the mint blue 1950’s Bel Air from the third season, or the Lincoln Futura, which despite initially being a concept car, its design incorporates well the classic-style from Ford in the 1950s, and an innovative futuristic design very fitting for Gotham Garage.
Another “Car Masters” build worth remembering is the orange cab-over-engine truck built in the first season. While this specific build might not be everyone’s cup of tea usage-wise, the massive vehicle is a testament to Gotham Garage’s staff. Fitting that description are also the Splittin Image build based on Hot Wheels’ original toy design from the 1960s, though there’s surely more impressive works yet to come from “Car Masters”.
Is The Show Real?
Even though Mark Towle has confirmed that not a lot has changed for his business since the show’s premiere, it’s not unusual for fans to question whether what they see in “Car Masters” is real or not. Though no one in the cast has come forward to address the genuineness of the show, it’s clearly not rare to find scripted scenes and even entire plotlines in the reality genre, so it’s easily assumed that “Car Masters” is no exception to this rule.
Furthermore, other questions regarding the staff’s roles in the shop when off-camera have arisen as well, and though it’s uncertain if the cast works full-time in Gotham Garage when “Car Masters” isn’t filming, many of them aren’t shy to promote their personal businesses on their social media, such as the case of Tony Quinones with TQ Customs, and Constance Nunes with CARS By Constance.
While it’d be great to know more about Gotham Garage when cameras aren’t around, there’s no reason to distrust the show’s legitimacy, yet. That being said, the fact that “Car Masters” is so entertaining and keeps delivering top-notch car builds is enough to keep us tuning in for many seasons to come.