Who owns Betty Boop?

Apparently the Fleischer estate has lost a court battle for the rights to Betty Boop, a character created by Grim Natwick at Max Fleischer’s studio in 1930. Fleischer Studios has been co-licensing (with King Features) the property (along with Pudgy, Grampy, Binmbo and Ko-Ko the Clown) for several decades now.

The Fleischer Studio tried to sue Avela Inc. over its licensing of public domain Betty Boop poster images (for handbags and T-shirts). The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (based in San Francisco) ruled against the Fleischers, saying in their decision, “If we ruled that AVELA’s depictions of Betty Boop infringed Fleischer’s trademarks, the Betty Boop character would essentially never enter the public domain.”

According to court documents, the Fleischer Studio originally assigned its rights to Betty Boop to Paramount Pictures on July 11, 1941. Paramount assigned those rights to Harvey Films, Inc on June 27th, 1958. Harvey actively licensed the character in the early 1960s. On May 15th 1980, Harvey Cartoons transferred “Betty Boop and her Gang” to Alfred Harvey and his brothers. Judge Susan Graber said there was no break in the chain of title.

So where does that leave Ms. Boop? No longer represented by the heirs of Max Fleischer and King Features Syndicate? Does this make Harvey Comics – or by extention, its current owner Classic Media – the owner of the property? Or is the character now in public domain.

For the record: The master film elements to original Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons are still owned by Paramount Pictures (and are maintained at the UCLA Film and Television Archive). Many of those films have legally entered the public domain, many others have not (they are still protected under copyrights held by Paramount/Viacom). We hope that someday the studio deems it fit to restore and release these classics on DVD.

UPDATE: Interesting analysis in the comments by animation historian David Gerstein:

Rough analysis (could be wrong):

The Betty Boop character is a Fleischer trademark.

But–Betty Boop 1930s movie posters were not copyrighted (or not renewed?) as standalone items, so are public domain.
Fleischer tried to use its active trademark on the character to stop a third party’s use of the ancient PD art. Judge said this was a no-go.

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.

The issue of whether Paramount legitimately sold the active Betty trademark to Harvey appears to be entirely separate, though very interesting.


  • http://mayersononanimation.blogspot.com Mark Mayerson

    I never understood how the Fleischer family could claim any ownership of Betty Boop when they lost the ownership of the studio to Paramount. While the Boop cartoons were no longer being made at that time, they were still studio assets. Unlike Koko, the Fleischers could never claim that Boop pre-existed the corporate entity that ended up under Paramount’s control.

    • http://www.lesliecabarga.com Leslie Cabarga

      I think King Features maintained that it owned Betty based on having issued a BB comic strip in the 1930s. I surmise that King agreed to the concept of Max Fleischer family co-ownership because it was easier than trying to unravel true ownership in which it might be revealed that KING did not actually own Betty. A King Features lawyer told me once in the 1970s that at one point The Fleischers tried to take ownership of Betty away from them but King basically told them to GTH. Which indicated to me that the Fleichers really had no power in the situation. Same lawyer also told me definitely that their research showed that KoKo was in the public domain.

  • Sat

    The only worthy Betty Boop DVD collection I know of is in France, the OOP 5 DVD set is currently being printed again in five separate single DVD sets. It’s the whole thing, in English, including stuff like Bimbo’s Initiation and Swing, you Sinners!. That’s way better than the random collections we have here, always missing one of the crucial shorts and always looking bad.

  • Squozen

    “If we ruled that AVELA’s depictions of Betty Boop infringed Fleischer’s trademarks, the Betty Boop character would essentially never enter the public domain.”

    That’s right. Only Disney gets to hang onto characters for eternity.

    • dbenson

      That is an interesting point, if anybody runs with it. The current thinking seems to be if an entity — generally not the actual creator — keeps renewing, a property can be held out of public domain forever. I think the ultimate corporate dream is to be able to charge you for thinking of a creative work they own, generations after the last begrudged check to the artists.

    • Scarabim

      And thank God. I don’t want anybody else to be in control of Mickey but Disney. The results could be horrific. Anybody else here remember Air Pirates?

      In fact, I think the copyright laws need to be re-examined for all creative properties. As long as a character or property is still active in some way, it should be allowed to be owned by some agency that can insure that its integrity is maintained.

      • Vik

        The Air Pirates underground comics were actually pretty amusing, but should have been limited to a single issue (so that it fell under “parody”). They made a big mistake when they produced a second issue and then offered subscriptions to the Air Pirates comics. Of course, Disney has always been heavy-handed when it comes to parodies/spoofs that they don’t care for.

      • Mike from Vashon

        The problem caused by a very long copyright expiration period is that thousands of works become orphaned and stay that way for decades, so they go out of print and disappear. You can’t touch them if you don’t own the copyright.

        Disney will always push Congress to extend copyright and change the law to let Disney and only Disney to sell Disney content.

        For all I know, Disney may be delighted that it is able to so easily marginalize the content of potential competition as collateral damage.

  • http://www.kustomonsters.com Craig Clark

    I understand that 22 of the Betty Boop films are in public domain.

  • http://www.ronimation.com Ron

    Whoever ends up winning the court battle, I hope they have good sense enough to make more cartoons starring Betty.

  • http://ramapithblog.blogspot.com David Gerstein

    Rough analysis (could be wrong):

    The Betty Boop character is a Fleischer trademark.

    But—Betty Boop 1930s movie posters were not copyrighted (or not renewed?) as standalone items, so are public domain.
    Fleischer tried to use its active trademark on the character to stop a third party’s use of the ancient PD art. Judge said this was a no-go.

    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.

    The issue of whether Paramount legitimately sold the active Betty trademark to Harvey appears to be entirely separate, though very interesting.

    • http://animationanomaly.com Charles Kenny

      A spot-on analysis.

      Plenty of people get confused between the concepts of copyright and trademark and often mistake one for the other.

      The main difference is that copyrights expire whereas trademarks last forever as long as they are being actively used.

      In regards to the Looney Tunes, when a new series of copyright laws were introduced in the 1970s, companies had to renew the copyright of a property under those new laws in order to get the protection afforded by them. The main result of that is that on the one hand you have many of the Felischer/Mintz films in the public domain and on the other hand, the likes of Steamboat Willie/Bugs Bunny who remain under copyright until at least 2050 or thereabouts. That is most likely the crutch that Warner Bros. used against the third parties.

  • http://www.BuzzDixon.com b

    So theoretically someone could take the 22 PD Betty Boop cartoons, re-edit & re-dub them & perhaps even colorize ‘em and call ‘em a “new” Betty Boop feature & be in the clear?

    • Jim Meadows

      Actually, this has already been done, and perhaps b was slyly referring to it, and I missed the joke.

      Anyway, my DVD copy of Dan Dalton’s 1980 movie “Betty Boop for President” (released by BCI in 2004)does not seem to contain any references to Paramount, King Features, Harvey, the Fleischer Estate or anyone else who might lay claim to Betty Boop.

      The 1980 “Betty Boop for President” is cobbled together from several of those redrawn-for-color cartoons that came out in the 1970s. It draws on the original “Betty Boop for President” and several others, with a new soundtrack telling the story of Betty Boop’s campaign for the presidency, and her efforts to escape from “Beelzebub the devil”, a real shape-shifter, since he takes the guise of whatever bad guy shows up in a Betty Boop cartoons used in the film. Victoria D’orazi is billed as the voice of Betty, and Tom Smothers narrates as Pudgy.

      It all seemed pretty cheesy to me. But if I understand the analysis by David Gerstein, this movie using old public domain Betty Boop cartoons was made legally, while a picture with newly made footage would be a violation of trademark.

  • http://www.tjrmusic.com TJR

    >>>>>>Jerry Writes>>>>>>>>>

    We hope that someday the studio deems it fit to restore and release these classics on DVD

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I will be first in line to purchase a copy when they do.

  • http://www.DigThisCrazyTestPattern.com Kevin Wollenweber

    Ah me, it is always a shame when history is allowed to be retold by those who know nothing of it or care nothing of it. As I listened to Randy Newman’s Oscar-winning song tonight, two lines seemed to stand out–”don’t turn your back on me” and the song’s title.

    I sure wish that all would stand with the Fleischer heirs and try and keep control of the characters and stand also behind full restoration of the cartoons. I no longer can figure out why there is all this fighting about who controls what when absolutely *NO* one cares about the most important task here–making sure that the cartoons of the Max Fleischer Studio do not lose what is left of the best master source material, wherever that is.

    Warners has lost all interest (or so it seems) in further restoration of the POPEYE Famous cartoons; I’m glad that they restored all the black & white Fleischer shorts, but we’re losing slowly some of the best source material for the full color POPEYE shorts. This sort of decay has happened to some Fleischer cartoons already and I’ll leave that the historians to tell me how badly this has effected the possibilities of restoration. Lawyers and business people squabble over the rights to these cartoons while having little or no interest in restoration and, in the end, isn’t that what we really care about here?

    If posters and BOOP cupie dolls stopped production tomorrow, while the cartoons saw full and complete release, I think I and the Fleischers would be happy that someone is concerned and, best of all, people would once again be talking on all manner of websites and weblogs about our beloved Ms. Boop. Let’s stop retelling animation history, because the true history is getting lost in all the legal red tape and, really folks, in the end, nobody wins. Concentrate on what matters most, the FULL AND COMPLETE RESTORATION OF ALL THINGS MAX FLEISCHER!!

  • Luke

    We as devoute Betty Boop fans anxiously await her restoration.

  • Karl Wilcox

    If Harvey “actively licensed the character in the early
    1960s,” how come they never published a BETTY BOOP comic
    book?

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Just the thought of Betty being under the Harvey banner feels so weird to me! I don’t suppose Classic Media’s going to be touting it’s ownership of said character anytime soon.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/VujadeEntertainment#p/u/0/3HaupcJwAdk Steve Schnier

    Well, if no one else wants her – I’M CALLING ‘DIBS’ ON BETTY BOOP!

    SHE’S MINE!!! Mine all Mine!!! BWA-HA HA HA HA HA…

  • FleischerFan

    Wow, this decision seems to create more questions than it answers.

    The Boop cartoons that are not in the public domain remain the property of Paramount/Viacom. It would be up to them to either release a full set of Boop cartoons or authorize someone else to do it. That does not appear to be in debate.

    What is in debate is who owns the Boop trademark. Betty has proven to be a very durable marketing icon ever since her rediscovery during the 1970′s. There is a ton of new merchandise featuring new images of Betty produced regularly. The question is now who licenses that stuff?

    One might think that would be Classic Media, but the judge’s ruling also seemed to come down on the side of “Betty Boop as an icon is in the public domain” – which means anyone could produce anything they wanted to using this character.

    Very puzzling.

    • http://www.frankpanucci.com Frank Panucci

      If the ruling is upheld and it is found to grant the free use of B. Boop to all:

      Paramount could indeed re-issue pristine Boops, but it would benefit manufacturers of legal but unfettered-by-license Boop merchandise. Mega-corporations seem vehemently loathe to do anything that might grant some small financial benefit without return to any individual or companies that fall outside the mega-corporate umbrella, so a Boop Deluxe boxed set seems unlikely.

      • http://www.cartoonresearch.com Jerry Beck

        Actually Frank, that’s not necessarily true, at least in the case of Warner Bros. with Looney Tunes, Fleischer Superman, Popeye and Universal with its Walter Lantz library. They’ve restored many public domain titles regardless of its use beyond their first sale.

  • Justin Delbert

    Well, you did say, Jerry, that a Betty Boop DVD box set that is officially released would be your dream cartoon release. All we could do is wait and see what will happen. Now do all of the Paramount titles for the Boop cartoons still exist?

  • http://www.classicparamountcartoons.blogspot.com ParamountCartoons

    I really want a Betty Boop DVD really badly. But after what we learned about the Popeye sets, I’m sort of on Paramount/Lionsgate’s side of not restoring the cartoons. UM&M spliced their logo on the original negatives. I read on UCLA’s catalog one Fleischer “Screen Song” had a HUGE problem with the “head”, so that means UM&M’s stupid black-and-white negative cutting (at the regretful request of Paramount) killed off the Paramount logos.

    Yes, the whole Fleischer becoming Famous Studios could have been avoided, but it was finacial issues, not competing meduims

    As I said about the titles, Paramount’s mistake to sell them off was probably the most regretful buisness descisions to an animation and film historian. Think about it- if Paramount didn’t sell off the films to MCA TV, Harvey, UM&M/NTA, Paramount would have such a rich history for the early to standard sound era. And a Betty Boop boxset would have feasible for the VHS/LD era, with bigger double-dipping for the DVD, Blu-ray, digital, and beyond eras. Believe me, if this all happened, we would be tired of Paramount releasing Casper on every medium- and Speilberg would of have to have his live-action CGI features of the friendly ghost released through Paramount.

    Of course if Paramount owned all the rights to their their own pre-1967 cartoon productions without any sales to television or other compaines and it was still being shelved along with:
    http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/wp-content/k/Terry.jpg

    • Matthew K Sharp

      “And a Betty Boop boxset would have been feasible for the VHS/LD era”

      It was. It was released on both VHS and LD.

      I own a set of the lasers myself, having decided to splurge out rather than wait for the copyright owners to extract the digit and release them on DVD. Indeed, the copyright owners might like to reflect that, whilst I paid a goodly sum of money for the set (and the postage), not a cent of that went to them. Whereas, if they’d released a DVD set, some of the money would have gone to them. But I guess they know their business better than I…

      • http://www.classicparamountcartoons.blogspot.com ParamountCartoons

        I knew that Republic did it, but I was trying to make a point about “double-dipping” by being hypothetical about Paramount releasing one.

  • UndeadOtaku

    Most of the public domain films have be restored.
    They are sold under the Cartoon Crazys titles.
    They got clearance from the Fleischer family.
    Also most of the titles are made from transfers of film masters that the Fleischer’s had.

  • http://journeytojohnsbrain.blogspot.com/ Mr. Zone

    Uh … no. They weren’t & they didn’t. The Cartoon Crazys series are 16mm PD prints. As mentioned in this article UCLA curates 35mm prints of the Fleischer films.

  • Steven Rowe

    While the Harvey Comics, etc were sold to what eventually was sold to Classic Media, Alfred Harvey owned some items by himself, that weren’t sold – Black Cat and Sad Sack to name two. So does the estate of Al Harvey own Betty Boop?

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Interesting question at that!

  • http://pbs.steigerfamily.com Peter B. Steiger

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Helen Kane’s connection to this. It’s hypocritical for Fleischer et al to claim that Boop is their unique invention when she was deliberately designed to ride on Helen Kane’s popularity. After her failed attempt to protect her own identity from Fleischer Studios, I hope the late and lovely gal is having a good laugh at their expense now.

  • Hadrian

    Having works that essentially never enter the public domain stifles creativity in the long run. These things need to be made available for creative reuse and whoever is sitting around taking credit for work done 100 years ago needs to create new things. The way Disney and copyright holder’s woo congress, our entire culture will become vacuum sealed in copyrights for generations to come, with all our cultural icons own by corporations that pass them down to other corporations.

  • Kristjan

    Although the character’s trademark is on the loose, that is not the main problem the main problem is that most of copyright ownership of Viacom/Parmount/LeonGate, and that is the worrything since they are siting on goldmine and refuse to dig into it. IF someone could convince Viacom to sell the rights of individual titles to Fleishcer family then they could consult with Ray Pointer and/or Steve Stach to release those films properly restored.

  • http://www.kustomkool.com kevin dougherty

    I spent a time working for one of those boiler room VHS distributors who would flood the market with public domain stuff like old Warner Bros. and Fleishcer titles. The rule of thumb was we could put anything P.D. on tape but the images used on the covers were a bit of a litmus test that the lawyers had to sort out. They made a big deal about disclaimers that stated the cover images were from P.D. source material (even though it was re-drawn and colored; it was basically new work.) It was messy. Big retailers always wanted copious legal documentation that would indemnify them if (and when)the trademark holders came calling. The good part was I got paid to watch Daffy Duck cartoons all day.

    • Funkybat

      I’m pretty sure your experiences would make for an interesting blog post, or maybe even a full-scale article. I have long been curious about the origins and inner workings of those “public domain” cartoon tape outfits. I remember buying one once and being surprised at the tremendously bad tape quality (I assumed the video itself would be of poor quality.) I think the recordings were in EP mode, which made the old mono sound even more muddled and unintelligible.

      I figured a lot of that stuff was coming from overseas, but it sounds like some of it was done here in the US (unless you were outside the US at that time.) About the only good thing to be said about those tapes is that they sometimes offered the public a chance to see long-forgotten cartoons that were not available anywhere else, though a lot of it seemed to be overlapped with other more legit releases.

  • Greg Ehrbar

    Maybe the answer lies in one of Betty’s own cartoons:

    “Who owns lit-tle Bet-ty Boop?
    Mister Nooo-body!”

  • Molly Sami

    @Kristjan
    Now why on earth would they want to ask Raypointer? they already know everything they need to know. they have lost anyway, so they might aswell leave Betty to kingfeatures.
    Betty is no longer in animation she is only a “ICON” now.

  • TB

    There is a lot of confusion here in regards to PD. Someone even commented that there are 22 BB titles in the PD? Where they got that is beyond me.

    This court case is about the character itself and not the cartoons- which are PD. The copyrights on these cartoons are expired.

    In fact you can buy masters of them from several reputable PD companies that specialize in remastering these titles for broadcast.Try Retro Film Vault or Festival Films.

  • http://www.yellow-zebra.co.uk/ craig david

    great blog on betty boop posters

  • DW

    So can you put a pic of Betty Boop on a t-shirt an not worry about copyrights?