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Top court rules copyright for U.S. ‘Popeye’ expired in Japan

July 18, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ A high court ruled that the Japanese copyright for the Popeye cartoon character expired in 1990, settling a 13-year-old lawsuit against a necktie-maker who put the spinach-eating sailor on his products.

The decision, stemming from a 1984 lawsuit by King Features Syndicate Inc., The Hearst Corp. _ both New York-based publishers _ and American Features in Japan, came on Thursday and overturned a lower court ruling.

The Supreme Court said the standard 50-year copyright mandated by Japanese law had expired in 1990 _ based on the cartoon’s first U.S. publication in 1929, but excluding the 1941-51 period when Japan and the United States were at war.

The ruling, however, was not a clear victory for defendant Yoshiharu Matsutera, the Asahi newspaper reported Friday. He won’t be able to put the character on commercial products because such use is restricted under a separate law, Japan’s Prevention of Unfair Competition Act, said Kenichi Suemasa, a lawyer for the defendant.

Under the court’s decision, people may recreate the Popeye image for their personal use, such as on small numbers of T-shirts for their friends or family, he said.

The Supreme Court rejected a 1992 Tokyo court ruling that said copyright protection is renewed each time a character appears in a new comic strip.

Matsutera said in a telephone interview that his company’s predecessor had obtained the trademark rights for Popeye in the late 1920s from Japan’s patent office. But the patent office revoked them early this year.

``If I had the money and time, I would bring a suit against Japan’s patent office,″ Matsutera said.

Litigation in Japan is a notoriously long process, and copyright suits are particularly time-consuming. Many copyright violators simply gamble on not being punished.

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