Popeye, Grey Owl and Robert Service join the public domain

He's strong even after the 'finich,' but copyright has run out on Popeye as he joins a long list of celebrities in the public domain.

Generations of fans know that despite his many flaws, Popeye is a man at ease with himself.

"I yam what I yam," the spinach-loving sailor man has long reminded friends and foes.

But as of the first day of 2009, he "yam" a whole lot more.

He's public domain.

Popeye's image now belongs to the world.

There are no longer royalties to pay because his creator, Elzie Segar, died in 1939, and in much of the world, copyright expires 70 years after the creator's death. Put his squinty-eyed face on a T-shirt, use his forearms to advertise spinach or lift his image off the internet to illustrate your story on public domain.
You want a piece of me? (Public domain)

It's not entirely straightforward, however.

For instance, Popeye has already been in the public domain in Canada for 20 years because Canadian copyright law protects a creator's work for just 50 years following death.

In the U.S., copyright law appears to protect creations even longer if they were done as works for hire. (Segar's Thimble Theatre comic strip, which included Popeye, was drawn for the Hearst syndicate.)

As well, many of the sailor man's animated adventures and modern re-imaginings are much younger and remain protected.

And if you do wish to make money with Popeye's likeness, there are good reasons to expect a legal battle. The Times of London reports Popeye comic books, cartoons, games, movies and other merchandise generate about $2.2 billion in annual sales.

Oh, and the expiration only covers the copyright, not the trademark. A particular image of Popeye might qualify as trademark for a particular brand of vitamins. Trademarks can be re-registered again and again and the difference between them and copyright often causes the kind of confusion that enriches lawyers.

There are so many complications, Popeye would likely find it "disgustipating."

For six years, Ottawa resident Wallace McLean has been keeping an eye on expiring copyrights on his weblog publicdomain. It's an extensive list of works that are no longer protected in Canada and the world. The creations of some familiar names fall into public domain in Canada this year.

Robert Service died in 1958, so his poetry, including The Cremation of Sam McGee, is now in Canada's public domain. So are the works of British aircraft pioneer Alliott Verdon Roe. He's the founder of the company that built the legendary Avro Arrow.

There are many more arcane names among the newly royalty-free:  Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milanković, an early climate-change watcher, and Australian politician James Guthrie. Feel free to cut and paste from his A World History of Sheep and Wool.

In countries that adhere to the 70-years-after-death rule, copyright has fallen from the works of Grey Owl (otherwise known as the Hastings, England-born Archie Belaney). Europeans may now add his King of the Beaver People and Indian Legends and Lore to their public domain bookshelves.

McLean says he became particularly interested in copyright law in 2003 with the defeat of a bill that would have extended the term of copyright on unpublished works. It was known as the Lucy Maud bill because, among other things, it would have extended the protection on the archival documents of the creator of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery.

He believes in an ideal universe, copyright should expire sooner following the author's death so others can make new creative use of the material. For example, Disney was able to take advantage of the earlier expiration of Rudyard Kipling's U.S. copyrights to release its animated Jungle Book movie.

But he thinks with the many international conventions around copyright, earlier expiries are unlikely to happen.

"What really should happen, however, is the shortening of certain terms, particularly the so-called "transitional period" for unpublished literary works – dusty old archival papers – should be shortened in both Canada and the U.K. to bring those terms into line with the published works of the same authors," he said in an email.

"The published works of Mackenzie King have been public domain in Canada since Jan. 1, 2001. His unpublished letters will remain copyrighted until 2049. It's an awkward situation for scholars who have an interest in that period."

Also entering the public domain in Canada this year

U.S. hymnist George Bennard: The Old Rugged Cross

US. screenwriter Jack Henley: Bonzo Goes to College

English poet Alfred Noyes: The Highwayman

U.S. writer Johnston McCulley: Zorro

And in 2010...

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright : Genius and the Mobocracy

U.S. Writer Raymond Chandler: Farewell My Lovely

English Novelist Sax Rohmer: Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu   

U.S. Singer Buddy Holly: Peggy Sue


McLean says he's personally been able to profit from the public domain.

He's published articles for local history publications and has a few books in progress that rely on unrestricted access to older works.

Still, older works are often creaky or culturally out of step with modern values. Is there likely to be a European reawakening in the interest of works of Grey Owl?

"Possibly. If there are any European publishers or other cultural promoters interested in creating a Grey Owl growth industry, they are now largely free to do so," says McLean.

"It's never easy to predict which cultural works or cultural figures from the past will find new popularity tomorrow in new re-creative hands. Andrew Lloyd Webber got rich and famous by way of, among others, Eva Peron, Gaston Leroux, and some old dude's poems about cats."

Like an old battlefield seemingly peaceful and covered with flowers, the public domain remains a hidden minefield.

24,000 music scores on Canadian website

Edward Guo is the Vancouver-based creator of the International Music Score Library Project,, a gigantic archive of classical music scores with its servers in Canada.

It was launched in 2006 and according to its website hosts scans of more than 24,000 scores from 1,200 composers.

It was an amazing resource for musicians – and it wasn't long before it became the target of lawyers. An Austrian publishing firm sent cease-and-desist letters, claiming that while the scores were all in the public domain in Canada, some had not yet entered the public domain in Europe.

Guo was a college music student at the time and didn't have the resources to fight a legal battle, and he took the entire IMSLP down.

Fortunately for him, people active in the public domain considered his site a test case and went to bat for him. He credits the backlash and the shakiness of the music publisher's legal position for allowing him to go back on line June 30, 2008 — without removing a single score.

"My advice about the public domain would be not to count on one's own interpretation of it (unless you love reading Copyright Acts in your spare time that is), because copyright is an extremely tricky beast," Guo said in an email.

"This, combined with the willingness of certain copyright owners to send out fraudulent threats mixed with substantial threats make copyright issues a place where many people would not want to go, for good reason. This is partly why a project such as IMSLP is so useful; you generally do not need to worry about copyright issues when using files from IMSLP." 

McLean has his own idea.

"Canada and other countries have to start thinking about copyright not just in terms of what is politically expedient — this usually means throwing copyright lobbyists a new bill every eighteen months or so, in hopes they'll stop asking for at least a year — but also in terms of what is in the long-term interest of culture and posterity," he says.

"The law should encourage and allow future generations of Disneys to riff off the future classical common culture; maybe an animated version of the Golden Girls, or a Da Vinci Code musical. Unfortunately, the public interest and the interests of posterity don't have a well-organized and funded lobby behind them, unlike many other participants in the copyright debate, so it's very hard to get these issues on the policy-makers' agenda."

The public domain lets an author's genius enter the cultural treasure house of humankind and allow the whole world to benefit.

Take advantage of it, but beware of pitfalls.

As Popeye says, "Let's not jump to seclusions."