From January 1, the iconic sailor falls into the public domain in Britain under an EU law that restricts the rights of authors to 70 years after their death. Elzie Segar, the Illinois artist who created Popeye, his love interest Olive Oyl and nemesis Bluto, died in 1938....
The copyright expiry means that, from Thursday, 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.
In the U.S., by contrast, Popeye will be locked up until 2024. And the Popeye trademark, as opposed to copyright, is still in effect on both sides of the Atlantic, so if you were hoping to borrow the sailor man's name for a fried chicken restaurant in Belfast you're SOL.
For those of us who don't think anyone should have a monopoly on any fictional character, the history of Popeye provides two precious pieces of ammunition. One is the wonderful set of Popeye films made by Dave and Max Fleischer in the 1930s, a grotesque and surreal series that sometimes seemed closer in spirit to Robert Crumb than to Mickey Mouse. If it weren't for the Fleischers, it would be easier to argue that no one but a character's creator should be able to use him. The Fleischer Popeye shows the benefits of allowing artists to tinker with someone else's invention.
The second piece of ammo? It's the much less impressive Popeye comics and cartoons that appeared after Segar died and the Fleischers moved on to other projects. It may be valuable to let people play with Segar's creations, but that doesn't mean a single company has any special insight into which artists are suited for the job. It's telling that the one time the latter-day Popeye started to get interesting again -- when the underground comix veteran Bobby London took over the strip from 1986 to 1992 -- the suits who ran King Features didn't like the fact that its franchise was making jokes about abortion and other controversial issues. So London was fired.
As of Thursday, any British artist can try to make a Popeye as good as that of Segar or the Fleischer brothers. What's more, he can do this without worrying that he'll meet the same fate as Bobby London. Best of all, if he does a mediocre job, we won't have to wait until he retires before learning whether anyone else can do better.