June 11th, 2006

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More about Popeye and the PD

Golly Moses, I caused quite a stir with my original post!

I know a thing or three about public domain issues, being a college media professor and all.

However, there seems to be a bit of confusion in media reports about the Warner deal.

The first story, which came from the Hollywood Reporter, was picked up by Reuters and is available through Google News, suggested a legal dispute which had landed the Popeye cartoons in the public domain in the first place had been settled, but did not elaborate. It was the settlement of that dispute, according to the story, which led to Warner being granted the distribution rights.

"During the entire videocassette era, the classic Popeye library was not available for legitimate release because of rights issues that have finally been resolved," said George Feltenstein, senior VP classic catalog marketing at Warner Home Video.

But a day later, Video Business magazine’s report suggested the cartoons would remain in the public domain, and that the Warner deal merely “marks the first time … that the cartoons will be marketed in a unified manner.”

Here is a link to the Hollywood Reporter story:


Here is a link to the Video Business story:


I didn’t post them originally because I wasn’t sure how long they would remain valid.

I understand the benefits of the Warner deal. Really. Great transfers of the Fleischer shorts would be a big bonus. My initial post was really cautionary about the robbery of public domain material. Remember, the works were in the public domain. Warner could have made great releases of them anyway, without securing all the rights for itself. Greedy corporate bastards.

That said, the various posters in this forum were correct on many accounts regarding the public domain, but incorrect on others.

* Even though some of his cartoons are in the public domain, Popeye, of course, remains a copyrighted property. This is also true of Mighty Mouse, Superman, Casper, Felix, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and a number of other characters whose individual cartoons have landed in the PD. This is why you find many of the packaging using licensed images rather than images from the shorts themselves. The DVD companies legally have to license the cover image, since the characters cannot be freely used for marketing purposes, even for the covers of the PD DVDs.

* “Night of the Living Dead” was originally to be named “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” When George Romero changed his mind about the name, his title-maker forgot to put the copyright mark on the new title. That’s how it landed in the PD. Today’s stricter PD laws prevent that from ever happening again.

* You need to significantly change a PD property in order to create a “derivative work” worthy of copyright. Re-editing a film, adding a new soundtrack or changing it from letterbox to pan-and-scan qualifies. For instance, the John Wayne movie “McClintock!” is PD in the original version only. The pan-and-scan is copyrighted.

* Legally, if a movie is in the public domain, its screenplay is, too.

* Just because a movie in its entirety is in the PD, certain elements of it are not. For instance, the Andy Griffith Show “whistle” theme is copyrighted, which is why it is usually removed from the PD episodes. And, Andy Griffith still has ownership of his face (jowly as it is), so you can’t take a screenshot from a PD episode and use it to market a product. "It's a Wonderful Life" was removed from the PD because it was determined its soundtrack was still under copyright and, of course, could really not be removed from the movie. That's why its legal to do radio productions and various other remakes of the film -- the screenplay is still PD.

* Thanks, Scott, for mentioning Sonny Bono’s act. He really took care of his Hollywood cronies before he lost his noggin skiing. Give me a few hours and I’ll rant to you all about how copyright is really contrary to creativity, rather than a protection of it. Better yet, invite me to come and talk about copyright at your conference or convention. I do it all the time.

Hope this clears some things up.