Can You Really Protect a Cartoon Character with Copyright?
Dear Rich: In response to your recent post on whether you can patent a cartoon character ... You can trademark a cartoon character. However, you can't actually copyright a character. You can copyright a story (either prose or illustrated) or an illustration featuring the character. A number of companies have discovered to their sorrow that unless stories featuring the characters have their copyrights renewed, those stories (even with trademarked characters) fall into the public domain. Examples of this are the first Superman novel, Adventures of Superman by George Lowther, the Fleisher Brothers' Superman, Betty Boop, and Popeye cartoons, and the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials among many others. We think you are on the right track -- You can register text describing the character or an image of the character but you cannot simply register the copyright for a character. However, regardless of whether you can register the character per se, copyright law will protect the character separately from the underlying text or story from which it evolved. So, even when an underlying work falls into the public domain, the copyright for the character may not. For example, when several strips of the Superman comic fell into the public domain in a 1952 case, a court ruled that the character of Superman did not. On the other hand, if all of the works embodying an author's character have fallen into the public domain, for example -- The Grimm Brothers' Snow White character -- then the character is free for all to use. Things get confusing when there is a dispute as to whether all of the author's works are in the public domain as is the case with Sherlock Holmes.