As reported at Cartoon Brew, a judge has ruled that just because a company has a trademark on a current version of a character (in this case, Betty Boop), they cannot stop people from using previous art that is now public domain (out of copyright). Quoting the key point, but visit the link for a full report:
The Fleischer Studio tried to sue Avela Inc. over its licensing of public domain Betty Boop poster images (for handbags and T-shirts). The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (based in San Francisco) ruled against the Fleischers, saying in their decision, “If we ruled that AVELA’s depictions of Betty Boop infringed Fleischer’s trademarks, the Betty Boop character would essentially never enter the public domain.”
Yay for a court supporting the idea of public domain over perpetual intellectual property ownership. In the comments, animation historian David Gerstein points out how this might affect another long-running cartoon favorite:
What I take from the judge’s ruling is that the trademark only applies to new, modern uses of the character. It can’t be used to stop people from redistributing old PD Betty images/items. Fleischer tried to say trademark trumped copyright; the judge is saying that it doesn’t. This is actually pretty major. In recent years, Warner has used the active trademarks on Looney Tunes characters to quash third parties’ reissues of PD 1930s/40s Looney Tunes content (of which there is a lot). If the Betty decision is not reversed on appeal, then Warner is stripped of its strongest weapon against the public domain.