March 26 is National Spinach Day, and we thought we would celebrate with an explanation of the copyright status of Popeye the Sailor Man, instead of a recitation of litigation related to e coli cases attributed to spinach.

It’s not one-size-fits-all with copyright laws around the world, so while Popeye is currently in the public domain in some countries, it is not in the country of “his birth,” i.e., the United States (US). For instance, the famous sailor entered the public domain in Europe on January 1, 2009, and in Canada 20 years before that. However, even in Europe, the use of Popeye is not free from all restrictions, as King Features Syndicate, Inc., still holds trademark rights to the character.

In Europe and other countries, the copyright for Popeye is based on the creator’s death, with the copyright period spanning “the whole life of the author and 70 years after his death.” While this same law applies in the US “for works whose author is identified,” a different copyright period exists in the case of a “work for hire” or for works “created anonymously or with the use of a pseudonym.” In those situations, “the duration of the copyright in the US will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.”

It is well-known “that the creator of Popeye was Elzie Crisler Segar,” and that Popeye first appeared in a comic strip on January 17, 1929. In the US, Popeye is considered “work for hire” because “Segar was an employee of King Features Syndicate when he introduced Popeye into the Thimble Theatre comic strip.” This means that Popeye will enter the public domain in the US on January 1, 2025.

But wait, there’s more! According to the US Copyright Office, “Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.” This “fair use” doctrine is what allows us to put the image of Popeye at the top of this blog post.

Happy National Spinach Day!