Las Vegas, NV asked in Copyright and Intellectual Property for Nevada

Q: i was writing a story about Bluto and other Popeye characters would this be something i can do or is this infringement

so i iv seen that popeye him self ist 100% public domain but i was trying to write a story evolving the characters from that "universe" but i dont want to get the ball rolling and end up infringing (this project isn't necessarily for profit but on the off chance it takes off )

1 Lawyer Answer
Eric Estadt
Eric Estadt
  • Intellectual Property Lawyer
  • Columbus, OH

A: Generally speaking, if there is doubt about whether you have permission, it is best to seek permission.

As I understand, because the original comic strips involving the Popeye character were created as a "work for hire" in the United States, they will not enter the public domain until at least 2024 (95 years after original publication). Thus, a story published today that involves the characters from the Popeye universe would likely infringe a valid copyright in the United States. Moreover, characters such as Wimpy, Swee'Pea, and Bluto appeared at later times and will not enter the public domain until 95 years after their own respective debuts.

Regardless, I also caution that there have been many derivative works created based on the original Popeye characters and comics, and many of those derivative works will continue to enjoy copyright protection for years to come. While those copyrights won't prevent you from using the character as originally conceived by E. C. Segar, they will prevent you from using anything a later Popeye artist "added on", such as new characters, updated character traits, and updated character designs.

Thus, even though you will soon be free to make stories about Popeye himself, you still need to be careful to ensure that you aren't infringing the copyrights covering other characters or elements of the Popeye universe or any derivative works that have not yet entered the public domain.

While it is often the case that owners of copyrighted popular media will not sue fan artists, this is purely by choice of the copyright holder, and is usually done for practical reasons. Some copyright owners only care if you are profiting, while others don't want you using their work at all. Just because you aren't monetizing your story does not mean it is not infringing, and there is always a chance you could be sued by the copyright owner.

Finally, you should be aware that Hearst Holdings, Inc. still owns a valid federally registered trademark in the word "POPEYE", covering a number of goods and services that include "comic strips". While I cannot say for sure whether a hypothetical story would infringe this trademark, I will note that trademarks can be renewed forever as long as the owner continues to use them.

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