Betty Boop creator's family loses copyright case

NEW YORK Wed Feb 23, 2011 5:11pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The family of the creator of Betty Boop lost its bid to be declared the exclusive owner of the copyright to the popular cartoon character.

A divided 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday said descendants of Max Fleischer were not entitled to control of the character, who is known for her large eyes, baby face, tightly coiffed black hair, short dresses and high heels.

Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote for a 2-1 majority that the plaintiff Fleischer Studios Inc could not prove it had title to the character, which Max Fleischer sold 70 years ago to Paramount Pictures Inc and later went through other hands.

Wallace also said the defendant AVELA Inc, which licensed Betty Boop dolls, T-shirts and handbags under a copyright based on vintage posters, did not infringe any trademark, having not held out its products as "official" or misled customers.

"If we ruled that AVELA's depictions of Betty Boop infringed Fleischer's trademarks," the judge wrote, "the Betty Boop character would essentially never enter the public domain."

Lawyers for Fleischer Studios and AVELA did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Max Fleischer created Betty Boop in 1930, and sold rights to the character to Paramount Pictures Inc in 1941. Fleischer died in 1972.

Wallace rejected Fleischer Studios' argument that Paramount sold the character in 1955, in a chain of title that ultimately led to its 1997 reacquisition of an exclusive copyright.

Indeed, the judge said there was evidence that Paramount transferred the copyright in 1958 to Harvey Films, known for characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Judge Susan Graber dissented, saying there was no break in the chain of title. The 9th Circuit sits in San Francisco.

Betty Boop's cultural impact evidently extends even to drug dealers.

Wallace pointed to a 2004 Minnesota search warrant that turned up "a large ceramic Betty Boop doll, with four concealed, separately wrapped plastic bundles of high-purity-level methamphetamine inside."

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)