The court noted the Betty Boop character “combined in appearance the childish with the sophisticated—a large round baby face with big eyes and a nose like a button, framed in a somewhat careful coiffure, with a very small body . . . .” Fleisher created the character in the 1930s as head of Fleischer Studios, a decade or so later selling his rights to the cartoon to Paramount Pictures.
Following Paramount’s acquisition, the rights to the character were divided and passed through several hands before being acquired by the family through their corporate entity, Fleischer Studios Inc. The family claimed they had obtained the whole and exclusive rights to Betty Boop and began licensing the character for use in merchandise. Fleischer Studios then filed copyright and trademark infringement suits in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to prevent sales of allegedly unauthorized sales of Betty Boop merchandise by numerous defendants.
In a 2-1 decision last Wednesday, the court upheld a lower court’s ruling that Fleischer Studios Inc. was unable to prove the chain of title to the rights of the character as they were transferred and therefore had no standing to bring a trademark infringement suit against several companies licensing Betty Boop merchandise. The Metropolitan News Enterprise explained that the appellate court judge agreed that the chain of title was broken several times and the rights eventually obtained by today’s Fleisher Studios were not whole and exclusive. The judge reasoned that since the purchase agreement between Paramount and UM&M TV Corp. transferred only the rights to the Betty Boop films, but “explicitly provided that the right to the Betty Boop character copyright was retained by Paramount,” the rights became divided and the family did not wholly track the chains of title or obtain fully the right to Betty Boop’s character.
The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog noted that the Betty Boop decision came down even as other families of creators of comic book and cartoon characters also have sought to assert their rights to iconic ‘toons, such as Superman and the X-Men. Marvel Entertainment, now part of Walt Disney Co., sued the heirs of Jack Kirby last year in federal court in Manhattan after his family moved to terminate Marvel’s rights to Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and other characters. That case is pending but heating up according to Animation World Network.