Shelby touts the decision as a win
The longtime holder of the copyright for the modified Ford Mustangs and Shelby G.T.500s that appeared in the various “Gone in 60 Seconds” movies has lost ownership of that copyright after a California court ruled this week that the cars known to film fans as Eleanor don’t count as characters and no longer deserve such copyright protection.
The Eleanor cars first appeared in a string of films by H.B. Halicki—the original 1974 “Gone in 60 Seconds,” 1982’s “The Junkman,” and “Deadline Auto Theft” the following year—before appearing in the blockbuster 2000 Nicolas Cage film “Gone in 60 Seconds.” In the first two, it’s a yellow and black 1971 Ford Mustang Sportsroof modified to appear like a 1973 Mustang while in the latter film, it’s a highly modified Shelby G.T.500 that has inspired countless clones and tributes in the 20-plus years since. In both cases, the premise behind the car remains the same: Eleanor’s a highly prized car, particularly to one professional auto thief who makes repeated attempts to steal it.
After Halicki’s death while on the set of a 1989 reworking of “Gone in 60 Seconds,” his widow, Denice Halicki, assumed ownership of the copyrights to the films and the films’ characters, claiming the Eleanor cars to be characters as well. Retention of her rights to the Eleanor characters were reportedly “a non-negotiable deal point” during her discussions with Hollywood Pictures to make the 2000 film, for which she served as an executive producer. In turn, Halicki licensed the Eleanor copyright to shops selling replicas of the Shelby-based car, to diecast companies, and to other merchandisers.
Following the 2000 film‘s success, however, Carroll Shelby filed to register the Eleanor trademark, setting off a legal battle between Shelby’s businesses and licensees and Halicki. At stake, according to a 2008 statement from Halicki’s lawyer, were “many millions of dollars.” Indeed, the latter-day Eleanor touched off a gold rush in replicas and cars used in the film, some of which have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even a cool million dollars. In November 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California ruled in favor of Halicki’s copyright claim, though at the time it deferred judgement on the question of whether Eleanor the car qualified as a character deserving copyright protection. More recently, Halicki drew the ire of the collector car community when her company, Eleanor Licensing, had an Eleanor project car seized from Chris Steinbacher, the YouTuber behind the B is for Build channel.
According to Shelby representatives, that years-long legal battle came to a close this week with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California’s ruling that vacates copyright protections for the Eleanor cars. As noted in the ruling—which the court issued only after “independently scutiniz(ing) the four feature films in which Eleanor appears”—Halicki “assign(ed) anthropomorphic characteristics to the [purported Eleanor] character, such as strength, talent, endurance, and a tendency to always save her leading man. In the Court’s view, these characteristics are an invention of overzealous advocacy.” In addition, the court’s ruling notes that Eleanor is portrayed inconsistently across and within each of the four films, that the application of a human name to a car is not particularly unique, and that “Eleanor’s make and model do not make it especially distinctive. Eleanor is not entitled to standalone copyright protection as a matter of law.”