Popeye Falls into Public Domain in Europe

Popeye the Sailor, one of the most recognizable of all comic book characters, has recently fallen into the public domain in Europe, which means that anyone can use the image of the popular cartoon character throughout the European Union without having to pay royalties.  Of course, as with virtually any intellectual property news story the popular press did not get all of the facts straight, although for the most part they seem to have gotten the highlights mostly correct, which is a step in the right direction.

The press reports that I have seen explain that while Popeye has fallen into the public domain in Europe he has not yet fallen into the public domain in the United States.  This does seem to be correct given that there is a difference in copyright laws between the European Union and the United States, but the reason given by the press is not completely correct.  It would appear as if whoever printed this story first simply had what they wrote about US copyright law copied and perpetuated, so it would seem that every news outlet running this story has gotten close, but not quite accurate. 

What you will read in virtually ever story on this subject across the Internet is that in Europe copyrights last for the life of the author plus another 70 years, but that the law in the US allows a copyright to exist for 95 years from the original copyright date.  Those familiar with US copyright law on any level know this is not true and deserves more inquiry.  The US also protects copyrights for the life of the author plus another 70 years, but in the case where the work was made as a work for hire, or was created anonymously or with the use of a pseudonym, the duration of the copyright in the US will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.  So it is not accurate to say that works are protected by copyright in the US for 95 years from the original copyright date, but it does seem true that Popeye will not fall into the public domain until 95 years from the first publication in 1929.  So Popeye will be protected in the US until 2024.

Popeye will enjoy protection in the United States through 2024 as a work for hire because we know that the creator of Popeye was Elzie Crisler Segar.  So that means that Popeye cannot qualify as a work created under a pseudonym, and it was not a work that was created anonymously.  So if Popeye is entitled to protection in the US through 2024 it is because it was created by Segar as a work for hire, which seems to fit with the known facts.  Segar was employed by the New York Journal when he created Popeye, who was originally conceived as a incidental character but soon became far more popular than the main characters in the cartoon drawn by Segar.  Had Popeye not been created as a work for hire by Segar it would have fallen into the public domain in the US at the same time as the European Union, or 70 years after the death of Segar. 

Now the question that I am sure many of you are asking yourself… if Popeye has not fallen into the public domain in the US am I infringing the copyright by placing an image of Popeye in this post?  I sure hope not is the short answer.  The longer answer is that I am not infringing.  In the US we enjoy strong fair use rights.  According to the Copyright Act, reproduction “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright…”  So given that Popeye has fallen into the public domain in Europe this article would qualify under the news reporting exemption.  Further, given that the news outlets reporting seem to have not gotten the story completely accurate this article would also qualify as a comment or criticism, so I am safe there as well.

For more information about copyright duration see How Long Does a Copyright Last.

About the Author

Eugene R. Quinn, Jr.
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
US Patent Attorney (Reg. No. 44,294)

B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Rutgers University
J.D., Franklin Pierce Law Center
L.L.M. in Intellectual Property, Franklin Pierce Law Center

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Gene is a US Patent Attorney, Law Professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He teaches patent bar review courses and is a member of the Board of Directors of the United Inventors Association. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, CNN Money and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide


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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for James Race]
    James Race
    February 13, 2014 11:59 pm

    Hello! I have a question for you in regard to this article about the use of Popeye. Would you happen to know who to contact to ask about using a picture of Popeye on a T-shirt I would like to make for a group of veterans? Thank you!

    James Race

  • [Avatar for Guest]
    September 4, 2013 11:48 am


    I dont speak english very well,
    I live in Europe, can I use Popay in commercial games?