Pow! Popeye Loses Copyright Battle in Europe

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Popeye in a promotional image for the television series Popeye, 1959

With a jaw as broad as a ship's stern and a code of honor he was ready to defend with his bulging forearms and fists, Popeye was a model of self-reliance. But now the irascible cartoon character's identity has become embroiled in a long-running transatlantic controversy over a question he might have answered with a spinach-fueled punch: Who owns art?

In December, the Times of London reported that Popeye would soon fall out of copyright in Europe, where the law allows publishing houses to charge licensing fees for reproduction of original material for 70 years after the death of the creator. (U.S. law protects works for 95 years after the initial copyright.) Popeye first featured in the Thimble Theatre comic strip just as the Great Depression got under way in 1929; his creator, Elzie Segar, died in 1938. (See pictures of the greatest animated movies.)

The article speculated that a new generation of Popeye posters, T shirts and even new comic strips would soon go on sale in European shops. But King Features, which holds Popeye's rights, says that's nonsense. Even if the copyright does expire, a spokesman for King Features told TIME, the company still holds rights to Popeye through trademark. Trademark, which protects works of "unique origin," is a similar protection to copyright but with different rules governing expiration. In a statement, the spokesman said, "[Use of Popeye's image] is an infringement of the rights afforded by the trademark registrations. King Features will vigilantly protect its trademark rights in the Popeye character."

The gray area between copyright and trademark is just one of many in the complex field of international intellectual-property law, which is currently grabbing public, not to mention legal, attention as many of the icons of the 20th century — from cartoon characters to rock 'n' roll artists — lose copyright protection in Europe. The issue generating the most publicity is Europe's briefer copyright period — record labels and publishing houses argue that it degrades copyright protection in the U.S. by allowing cheap and illegal European CDs and Internet downloads into the American market.

"There's an urgency to harmonize Europe's laws with America's. We are just getting to the stage where what is still considered 'contemporary culture' has started to fall into the public domain. Even the Beatles' recordings will begin to come out of European copyright in 2012 under the current law," says Mark Owen, intellectual-property partner at the London-based law firm Harbottle & Lewis. "The differing laws are causing tensions, particularly on the Internet, where it's unclear how they should be enforced." (See pictures of the Beatles in Liverpool, England.)

The European Parliament is currently studying whether it should extend from 50 to 95 years the copyright term covering sound recordings, thereby bringing European law in line with that of the U.S. But opponents of extending copyright say shorter copyright periods benefit consumers by eliminating hidden costs — European publishers are able to sell books at a much cheaper price, for instance, if they are not required to pay a licensing fee. Consumer groups accuse European politicians of swooning for the handful of crooners currently lobbying for copyright extension. French singer Johnny Hallyday — a close friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy — and the British pop legend Cliff Richard have run high-profile campaigns in the hope of continuing to collect royalties on recordings of songs they released in the 1950s. "Copyright is an economic instrument, not a moral one," Andrew Gowers, author of a 2006 British-government-funded study of intellectual-property laws and a proponent of shorter copyright terms, recently said. "Consumers find themselves paying more for old works. [Extending copyright] will line the pockets of lobbyists from the 'When I'm 64' generation."

The debate is unlikely to end anytime soon. Four committees in the European Parliament are currently discussing the issue. A resolution is not expected until well into this year at the earliest — not soon enough to end the controversy over Popeye. With the pugnacious sailor in the public domain, intellectual-property lawyer Owen predicts battles between publishing houses and King Features over whether Popeye and his Thimble Theatre pals are bound by trademark. But if European publishers decide it's worth the risk to try to resurrect the hero of the Great Depression, who other than King Features could blame them? If there's ever a time when the guy's brimming self-confidence would be welcome, it's now.

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