A little catch-up here on a potentially groundbreaking legal story that we don’t have time to completely break out, but basically, early Betty Boop cartoons are now in the public domain, despite Fleischer Studios still owning the trademark and licensing out contemporary versions of Betty Boop (which you see all over the place on purses, Ts and so on.)
Johanna has more on the story, but the potentially groundbreaking interpretation is something David Gerstein posts in the Cartoon Brew comments:
What I take from the judge’s ruling is that the trademark only applies to new, modern uses of the character. It can’t be used to stop people from redistributing old PD Betty images/items. Fleischer tried to say trademark trumped copyright; the judge is saying that it doesn’t.
This is actually pretty major. In recent years, Warner has used the active trademarks on Looney Tunes characters to quash third parties’ reissues of PD 1930s/40s Looney Tunes content (of which there is a lot). If the Betty decision is not reversed on appeal, then Warner is stripped of its strongest weapon against the public domain.
It can use the trademark against those who would create new Bugs Bunny items, but not against those who would exploit old PD material that Warner failed to protect.
Obviously, this is only an interpretation, but with tons of depictions of old characters (see previous post) coming into the public domain, this could have serious consequences, despite Disney’s ability to maintain copyright on Mickey Mouse seemingly forever.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.