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Question on Present Ownership of Characters used in Bell System Ads/Literature

Started by segaloco, February 06, 2024, 02:00:13 PM

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So I've started working up a video game project to design a lineman-themed platformer for probably the NES, maybe a more general design that can upgrade to 16-bit consoles too.  In either case, my character inspiration is drawing largely from various "characters" that have appeared in AT&T advertising or technical literature.  Some examples are Betsy Bell and the "He's service...I'm supply" pair of corporate mascots for AT&T and Western Electric.

I don't intend it to be a commercial venture, so don't intend on selling anything, but rather just publishing the code as I build it.  Still, I want to play it safe with copyright law, does anyone know if there is any current understanding of the ownership of these characters?  Similarly, the Coin Maintenance Check Booklet (and probably others) has several little pictures of these little goblins working on various things, a super-hero-esque illustration of a shielded handset cord withstanding being cut by scissors, that kind of thing, all inspiration I want to use to ensure my NPCs and other imagery actually draw from real historic telephone imagery and icons.

Is this one of the many things that passed into joint ownership by the RBOCs back in 83, was it retained by AT&T, sold off, abandoned?  Does anyone have the scoop?


I'm not exactly sure about the copyright law, since I'm not a lawyer.

However, you could check since it has information about the copyright law.
Check out the site below for helpful information about Automatic Electric phones.


Here's the .gov copyright site:

Good luck. It's a rabbit hole in itself that will use a lot of your time looking for what you want, if you find it at all.

A copyright attorney can be of help but that costs money.

The law changed in 1978

Prior to January 1, 1978, the copyright begins at the "first publication of the work and lasts for a period of 28 years, renewable for an additional term of 28 years, for a total term of protection of 56 years."

After January 1, 1978, the "copyright protection lasts for the length of the author's life plus another 70 years."

So, if the characters you want to use were created prior to about 1968, they may no longer be under copyright (2024 - 58 = 1968).

Then there are all the fair use and internet digital copyright provisions that will make your head spin.

BTW, trademarks are a whole 'nother can of legal worms separate from copyright laws. So, is the image(s) you want to use covered by copyright or trademark?


Well and that's the thing I don't really know, like what trademarks or copyrights would apply to magazine advertisements, little doodles in technical literature, that sort of thing.  AT&T was many things but it was not an entertainment producer like, say, big Hollywood studios, book publishers, etc. so it's not like these are characters from some show or movie or whatever in which they're the main focus of AT&T's work.

Sadly the Bell copyright site as far as I can tell only covers the logo and naming trademarks, at least I've found no trail after 1983 saying, for instance:

- The AT&T trademark "Betsy Bell" is being assigned to <legal entity XYZ>


- Illustrations in technical literature are remaining under AT&T's copyright

Complicating the matter is SBC gobbling AT&T back up and wearing their skin around like some sort of serial killer, blurring the line between what is AT&T property and what has found its way back into their hands by being owned by an RBOC descendant.  Like for instance could AT&T of today, if they wanted to, revert back to the Saul Bass logo of the 70s?  Is *this* AT&T still subject to the terms of Judge Greene's ruling, or are they far enough removed now they can use the iconography again?

I don't expect to find an unquestionable legal truth without actual legal counsel, but at the same time, this is less about being 100% right (because I'm already 99% certain what I'm doing is fair use) but I'm more just curious on whether there is even enough info on the record to try to run that down, like how those specific copyrights and trademarks were actually moved around after 1983.  The Bell naming and logo are the real obvious ones, but all this other stuff, much less so.

Edit: And to put a finer point on it, while I'm not really that concerned about some legal problem, I *do* want to give credit where credit is due. Someone or some group came up with these characters, the least I can do is try and properly credit them for their work, even if it's just a credit to the current copyright/trademark holder, if any.


Attribution up front would be good should whatever you produce come into question of infringement.