The latest character to enter the arena of copyright differences between Europe and the United States – Popeye.
Copyright laws in the European Union have not seen the massive (and usually corporately-fueled) revisions those in the United States have, meaning that the rights of the creator to their property/character are protected for 70 years after their death. Elzie Segar, who created Popeye, died in 1938, according to The Telegraph. Segar’s relatively early death at age 43, allows Popeye’s copyright to be tested before his more famous contemporaries.
In terms Newsarama readers will be familiar with, in Europe, starting tomorrow, January 1st, Popeye enters the Public Domain, and anyone can use the character of Popeye in new comics, clothing, and other media without the need to seek authorization from the Popeye rights holders (King Features) or pay royalties for the use. As always, it’s a fine line – the Segar drawings themselves are out of copyright, so derivative work can use and be based on them, but not on later material that was built upon Segar’s material. Additionally, the expiration only covers the copyright, not the trademark.
As mentioned, in the U.S., copyright law is a different ballgame. Under current law, Popeye is protected until 2024, as the copyright is protected for 95 years after the original copyright. With many corporately-owned characters eyeing that date on the horizon (Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Superman to name only a few), many copyright experts in the U.S. anticipate a full-on push to extend the time period even further, with some pondering the possibility of perpetual copyright.
Given the difference in the law between the U.S. and Europe, a legal challenge will certainly be mounted by a copyright holder which sees their character used without permission or royalty payment in Europe.
Newsarama Note: While copyrights are invovled, the expiration of copyright in this instance is a different matter than the legal battle that the wife and heirs of Jerry Siegel are currently invovled with.