Copyright Free Popeye

Posted by Scott

Public domain imagery is nothing new (literally), there are entire source art books for sale that are comprised of royalty-free imagery that’s outlived the “life–plus–seventy” rule of EU copyright law. But most of these images are vague and anonymous with no particular brand attached; they came from a time when the idea of branding was still a somewhat nascent concept. So it was interesting to read that the entire £1.5-billion/yr. Popeye brand has become public domain in the EU (still 15 years to go in the US) as it’s copyright expired yesterday:

The copyright expiry means that, from Thursday [Jan.1, 2009], anyone can print and sell Popeye posters, T-shirts and even create new comic strips, without the need for authorisation or to make royalty payments. ” – Adam Sherwin, TimesOnline  

It’s pretty incredible to think that such a visible icon which has fueled so many industries (restaurants, toys, television, film, etc.) will cease to be owned by it’s various copyright holders. It stands to reason that there are myriad complexities and caveats to this situation; I would imagine Popeye’s Chicken and the others will have some legal recourse to maintain their trademark when 2024 rolls around here in the US (do you guys in the EU even have Popeye’s Chicken?). Other brands soon to join Popeye in copyright-free purgatory include Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Superman (source). More info here & here

Image via erikland

11 Comments Leave A Comment


koneyn says:

January 2, 2009 at 2:15 am

This is really interesting, although I believe Popeye may not be that much of an exploitable character nowdays… MM, Bugs Bunny and especially Superman may be another story. I guess it’s hard to say if anyone will make some real profit from using them – new generations, new heroes.


eumhh says:

January 2, 2009 at 3:44 am

Spectrum: woaw, that was nice. I had a Sinclair 81, and was very jealous of my cousin’s Spectrum.
I’d say that Popeye is a cartoon in Europe (or at least in France) and not so much a marketing tool as I understand it is in the USA.
It is interesting to see the rather long gap between copyright rules between the EU and USA: 15 years is a long time.
I am wondering whether this is true for every country in the EU, thought, as national implementation of EU rules often varies.
Happy new year, full of spinach!


Scott says:

January 2, 2009 at 3:51 am

jose and eumhh-
I know you guys have the cartoons and all that, I was referring specifically to the restaurants. there’s a chain here called Popeye’s Chicken, for some reason I doubt they have those in europe. True, I don’t think Popeye carries the weight of some of the others mentioned, but it’s still a very recognizable image and could be re-used in any number of ways. Over 70 years of work went into building that brand and exposing the public to it, and now it seems it’s up for grabs. As the original article pointed out, now it’s just time for some enterprising spinach company to co-opt the imagery and try to trademark it themselves.


Jesse says:

January 2, 2009 at 9:11 am

Popeye’s Chicken is not named after the cartoon character, it’s named the character Popeye Doyle, from the movie The French Connection.


frank says:

January 2, 2009 at 12:18 pm

I can’t see this happening here. Mickey Mouse will never go public domain. Disney will just keep lobbying Congress and they’ll oblige by continuing to move the goalposts.


Scott says:

January 2, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I saw them mention that in the times article, but it’s confusing because here in San Francisco, there is a Popeye’s (I think on van ness?) that has popeye characters painted all over it. I think what happened is that they named it after the FC character, but later used the cartoon, here’s the quote from that article:

” The Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits chain was named after Popeye Doyle from The French Connection film. It now endorses the cartoon character ”

agreed, by the time this becomes an issue here in the US, the corporations who hold the copyrights will simply have the laws changed to suit their needs.


Luke says:

January 2, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Putting a different spin on Koneyn’s contribution, I think that it will be quite interesting to see what new kinds of pop eye interpretations there will be, if any. Even more interesting still, when Mickey and Superman hit the market.