Who Owns Betty Boop?

Betty Boop Opening Titles image from Wikimedia Commons

Mickey Mouse? Disney. Bugs Bunny? Warner Bros. Tom & Jerry? MGM. Yogi Bear? Hanna-Barbera. Shrek? DreamWorks. These iconic cartoon stars are, of course, also the main mascots of the companies that created them. Yet there is one cartoon character who has a major presence in popular culture, whose likeness is plastered on all kinds of merchandise from coffee mugs to T-shirts to soap dispensers that doesn’t immediately call a company to mind.

Who owns Betty Boop?

It’s a deceptively simple question with a not-at-all simple answer. One day, I saw a Betty Boop poster for sale and wondered about who the iconic cartoon character’s owner was. So, I did what anyone would do, a quick Google search. What I found took me down a rabbit hole I have been investigating for months in my spare time. The story of Betty Boop is a story about what can happen when entertainment, business, intellectual property law, and decades of history intersect.

The Creation (and Creators) of Betty Boop

Max Fleischer image from Wikimedia Commons

Our story begins all the way back in 1913. Motion pictures were still a very new technology, and animation was an even newer application of the technology that was just starting to wow audiences. It was in this year that an artist named John Randolph Bray decided to start his own animation company, Bray Studios. During World War I, Bray was the biggest name in animation in the United States, attracting talented artists who wanted to get in on the ground floor in this new, emerging art form. In 1916, Bray hired the Fleischer brothers, Max (pictured above), Dave, and Lou, Jewish immigrants from what would today be considered a part of Poland. For a while, the studio prospered, but by 1920 the company had started to run in the red. Samuel Goldwyn (the guy who was the “G” in MGM) bought a controlling interest in Bray Studios and increased the workload of the animators to an unreasonable degree – people can only draw so fast!

The Fleischer brothers got fed up with the intense schedule and quit to found their own company a year later. At first, they called themselves “Inkwell Studios” after their famous Out of the Inkwell series of animated shorts, but eventually changed the name to Fleischer Studios.

By the 1930s, big name characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny were all the rage in the animation arena, and Fleischer Studios needed a mascot character of their own. They introduced a cartoon dog named “Bimbo”, who the Fleischers thought would be their “Mickey”. Instead, movie-going audiences fell in love with Bimbo’s girlfriend, a sexualized caricature of the “flapper girl” trends of the time modeled on the singer Helen Kane.

Are you talking about little old me?

Are you talking about little old me?

Realizing the hit they had on their hands, the Fleischers made Betty Boop the star of their cartoons, and produced cartoons with her throughout the 1930s. However, as immensely popular as she was, she soon ran into trouble.

This was before the modern rating systems for movies that warn audiences about a film’s contents. Instead, Hollywood studios used what was known as the Hays Code to judge whether to distribute a movie or not, and there was tremendous pressure from movie theaters and distributors to meet the Hays Code requirements. Betty Boop was just too sexual of a character for the Hays Code censors, it seemed, so as time went on Boop’s design in later cartoons got more moderate, and her popularity plummeted as a result.

Betty Boop comparison from Wikimedia Commons

The last Betty Boop cartoon was released in 1939. The character sort of disappeared for decades, before being rediscovered in the 1980s. Her popularity has slowly returned over the decades, thanks in part to all that Betty Boop merchandise I mentioned earlier. Looking online, I found that almost all of the Betty Boop products you find in stores was made under a license from King Features Syndicate, who have a contract with Fleischer Studios to put Betty Boop’s image on any product you can think of. Today, you can visit Fleischer Studios’ website to learn all about the history of the character and other Fleischer Studios creations.

So, it’s an open-and-shut case, right? Fleischer Studios owns Betty Boop, of course!

Except there’s a problem. That Fleischer Studios whose website you can visit and who claims to own Betty Boop? Not the same Fleischer Studios that made the cartoons. It was founded in the 1970s by the Fleischer family.

The Tangled Mess of Following the Copyright Trail

Lost and Confused Signpost from Youthworker Movement

It turns out that the distributor for Fleischer Studios cartoons, Paramount, started to have a strained relationship with the Fleischer brothers. Eventually, things got to the breaking point in 1942, as the brothers went their separate ways and Paramount took control of the studio and all of the intellectual property rights to its creations. It changed the company’s name to Famous Studios, and assumed direct control of its production.

Famous Studios chugged along for a few years, but it never really caught up with the “big boys” like Disney and Warner Bros. To make matters worse, the advent of television changed the whole animation industry, and Famous was simply not prepared for the shock. The company was bleeding money so badly that in 1955 Paramount just straight-up sold off all of its cartoon archives, including all the Fleischer cartoons.

In the great sell-off, the Betty Boop cartoons wound up in the hands of U. M. & M. TV Corporation, a company that had until then produced television commercials. Really.

The following year, U. M. & M. TV was bought by National Telefilm Associates. NTA would syndicate the cartoons for television broadcast by stations that weren’t a part of NBC, ABC, or CBS, helping to keep some low-level awareness of the character alive so she could be revived in the decades to come. Alongside the rediscovery of Betty Boop in the 1980s, two new television specials were made: The Romance of Betty Boop and The Betty Boop Movie Mystery.

Around this time, NTA bought the rights to the name “Republic Pictures”. It was this name that it was using when it was bought by Spelling Television, who was in turn bought by Viacom. You know what else Viacom owns? Paramount.

After all that?

After all that?

This would be a nice way for the story to end, with Betty Boop winding up back at Paramount, if through the most convoluted way possible. Except it’s not the end of the story.

In 2006, Viacom split into two companies: Viacom and CBS Corporation. During the split, the rights to Betty Boop were reshuffled once again. Now, three companies jointly “own” Betty Boop. Trifecta Entertainment & Media has the right to put Betty Boop on TV, Olive Films has the right to put her old cartoons on DVD, and Melange Pictures, LLC, a Viacom subsidiary, has the movie rights to her.

Except just this past year, Simon Cowell announced his studio was going to make a Betty Boop movie. How can he claim to be able to do that? Well, he says he’s got the required permissions from Fleischer Studios. That is, the new Fleischer Studios founded in the 1970s that runs the website, not the original Fleischer Studios that created Betty Boop. Aren’t Simon Cowell and the new Fleischer Studios violating Viacom’s copyrights?

It turns out that the new Fleischer Studios has campaigned for decades to “reclaim” ownership of the cartoons their grandparents made, and took out a trademark on Betty Boop in 1998. So, if Viacom used its copyright to the character to make its own movie, it would be violating the new Fleischer Studios’s trademark.

Oh, and the new Fleischer Studios claims Republic Pictures gave them the copyright to the Betty Boop character in 1997.

I think my brain just broke

I think my brain just broke

So, who own Betty Boop?

Everyone owns Betty Boop! (Sort of)

It’s time to talk about copyright law. When I publish this blog, it is automatically copyrighted to me for the rest of my life under current U.S. law, and after I die the copyright will belong to my family for 70 additional years. I don’t have to do anything to get this copyright protection.

This was not the case before 1976, the year Congress passed the (appropriately named) Copyright Act of 1976. The Betty Boop cartoons are covered by the old laws that required people and corporations to register their copyrights to get copyright protection, and also required them to renew the copyrights to maintain ownership of their work. If they didn’t renew the copyright, their work would be put in the public domain, meaning it would be owned by everyone and could be freely used by anyone, for free, forever.

Remember how U. M. & M. TV made television ads? Advertisements, with rare exceptions, usually have a very short lifespan. You run it for a while to boost sales, and when audiences get bored with the ad you create a new one to maintain or increase your sales. Television ad agencies had no reason to renew their copyrights, as by the time their copyright protection was due to expire, the ads would have served their purpose and were of no further use to them. Many classic advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s are in the public domain for this reason.

It also meant that U. M. & M. TV had no person on their staff that was responsible for applying for a copyright renewal. As a result, 46 of Betty Boop’s cartoons are now in the public domain! The cartoon I embedded above is one of them, feel free to download it here, if you want.

Does this mean the character of Betty Boop is in the public domain? Well, that’s not entirely clear. It’s the kind of debate that lawyers will argue over. The original cartoons that introduced the character are still copyrighted – does this mean the character is still copyrighted, too? The only precedence we have with this stuff comes from other Fleischer Studios cartoons: the classic Popeye series (that is partially in the public domain) and the 1941 Superman cartoons (that is completely in the public domain). In both cases, the characters are still copyrighted, even if the cartoons are not, but that’s because the characters are not original Fleischer creations; they were made under contract. The rights to the characters are still owned by their original creators.

What’s more, how does that trademark fit into this picture? After all, Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2023, and Disney has trademarked him to try to continue to “own” the world’s most famous mouse. Trademarks have no expiration date. What happens when copyright law and trademark law intersect?

Betty Boop Goes to Court

Judges Gavel by Chris Potter

In 2011, we finally had an opportunity for all of this to be cleared up. A court was going to look at the evidence and determine, once and for all, who owns Betty Boop.

Wait, what’s that? It was the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? Isn’t that the court that once ruled the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional, and then changed its mind and reversed itself?

Uh, oh.

A.V.E.L.A, Inc. is a business that makes nostalgic Hollywood merchandise. It took a screenshot from the public domain Betty Boop cartoons, restored the image, and then printed it on its merchandise. The new Fleischer Studios sued for both copyright and trademark infringement.

The court examined all the same history I’ve just told you about who sold what to whom, but found an interesting detail in the original contracts when Paramount sold its libraries to U. M. & M. TV. Paramount kept the rights to the characters. This means that Paramount has owned the Betty Boop character all this time, and the Fleischer Studios claim to that copyright is bogus.

But what about the trademark? This is where things get tricky. In its first ruling, the court ruled that for a company to try to use trademarks to override copyright law and prevent their stuff from entering the public domain was illegal.

This prompted a huge outcry and backlash from numerous big businesses. Of course, it sent shivers up the spines of “People literally call us the House of Mouse” Disney. Having said that, the bigger problem with the ruling was for the myriad companies whose brand logos and mascots are both copyrighted and trademarked. Are those companies going to lose the rights to their own brand identities?

Rather than stick to its guns and potentially send the case on to the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit instead changed its ruling on the trademark case before Fleischer could even file its appeal. The new ruling found that the new Fleischer Studios’ trademark only covered the name “BETTY BOOP” itself, not pictures of her. This meant that Fleischer Studios wouldn’t be able to get all it wanted out of A.V.E.L.A., but it also meant that A.V.E.L.A. was no longer completely in the clear. Furthermore, the new ruling means that if you want to make your own Betty Boop merchandise based specifically on public domain images of her, it appears that you can do so as long as you don’t use her name. I think.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an intellectual property lawyer, please don’t take my word as legal advice.

So, I guess after all of that, it appears that the Betty Boop character is owned by Paramount, her name is owned by Fleischer Studios, and the right to distribute her cartoons is split between three different companies, except for the public domain ones, which you are free to use as long as you do not violate the rights of any of the above. Who would have guessed one poster would have led me down such a twisty road of discovery.

Well, gee, I never meant to cause such a fuss!

Well, gee, I never meant to cause such a fuss!

4 Responses to Who Owns Betty Boop?

  1. Pingback: Things You Won’t Believe Are (or Aren’t) Copyrighted | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Copyright and the Courts: Four Recent Headlines (and What they Mean) | Cat Flag

  3. Pingback: Celebrating Five Years of Cat Flag! | Cat Flag

  4. Pingback: What’s entering the Public Domain in 2020? | Cat Flag

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