The copyright expired on the spinach-munching character yesterday, becoming public domain in Britain under an EU law that restricts the rights of authors to 70 years after their death.
Elzie Segar, the Illinois artist who created Popeye, his love interest Olive Oyl and nemesis Bluto, died in 1938.
According to The Times, the copyright expiry means that anyone can print and sell Popeye posters, T-shirts and even create new comic strips, without the need for authorisation or to make royalty payments.
However, the Popeye trademark, a separate entity to Segar's authorial copyright, is owned by King Features, a subsidiary of US entertainment giant — which is expected to protect its brand ‘aggressively’.
Mark Owen, an intellectual property specialist at the law firm Harbottle & Lewis, said: “The Segar drawings are out of copyright, so anyone could put those on T-shirts, posters and cards and create a thriving business. If you sold a Popeye toy or Popeye spinach can, you could be infringing the trademark.”
Mr Owen added: “Popeye is one of the first of the famous 20th-century cartoon characters to fall out of copyright. Betty Boop and ultimately Mickey Mouse will follow.”
Popeye generates about £1.5 billion in annual sales.