Public Domain Day advent calendar #6: Barney Google (fox-trot) by Billy Rose and Con Conrad

“Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googly eyes,
Barney Google bet his horse would win the prize.
When the horses ran that day, Spark Plug ran the other way!
Barney Google, with the goo-goo-googly eyes!”

Several novelty songs introduced in 1923 have been remembered long afterwards.  The one quoted above is “Barney Google”,  written by Billy Rose (whose other songwriting credits include “Me and My Shadow” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?”) and Con Conrad.  The song’s registration with the Copyright Office calls it a “fox-trot”, the foxtrot being one of the most popular dances of the time. (The dance would stay popular up to the early days of rock’n’roll– the label on a 1953 single record for “Rock Around the Clock” describes it as a “novelty foxtrot” . But I digress.)

Originally performed by Eddie Cantor, “Barney Google” was also adopted by vaudeville acts like Olsen and Johnson, and other singers.  It was still recognizable enough by the 1970s to be adapted for TV commercials I recall seeing on Saturday mornings for a brand of sweetened peanut butter (“Koogle, with the koo-koo-koogly eyes!”)

Copyrighted in 1923, and renewed in 1950, the song will join the public domain 26 days from now.  It’s based on a comic strip whose beginnings are already in the public domain, and which is still running.

Barney’s comic strip was originally titled Take Barney Google, F’rinstance.  It began in 1919 in the Chicago Herald Examiner, but got a much wider distribution after King Features began syndicating it later that year.  It got even more popular with the introduction of Barney’s horse, Spark Plug, in 1922.  So when the “Barney Google” song came out the following year, listeners were already familiar with the characters in it.  Barney would also appear in numerous silent films and cartoons in the 1920s and 1930s.  In the 1930s, he met a hillbilly named Snuffy Smith, who would eventually take over the comic strip.  (It’s now titled “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith”, though when I read it in the papers as a kid, “Snuffy Smith” was in much bigger lettering, and I wondered who Barney Google was, since I never saw him in the strip. He’s reportedly made cameo appearances more recently.)

The early years of Barney Google’s strip are in the public domain, though you may have difficulty finding good copies.  For the most part, newspapers and the comic strips that appeared in them were considered ephemeral, and copyright renewal was very rare.  But after the success of Blondie and Superman, which both began in the 1930s, and the ongoing popularity of Disney’s characters, comics were increasingly seen as valuable intellectual property, and started to be renewed regularly.  A large number of periodicals in my periodical renewals inventory that renewed from the very first issue are comic books.

It’s a bit tricky to identify the point at which Barney Google’s strips stop being public domain and start having active copyright. You’ll search in vain for his name in book, periodical, or artwork renewal sections of the Catalog of Copyright Entries.  The first active copyright renewal covering the Barney Google strips, as far as I can tell, doesn’t mention his name at all.  It’s the renewal for the May 4, 1933 issue of King Features Comic Weekly, one of a set of periodicals from King Features that I have a hard time finding in any libraries.  It appears to have existed solely for distribution to newspapers, copyright protection, or both.  From what I can tell, the King Features weeklies included a copy of every comic strip, newspaper column, or other feature that King Features distributed.  Registering an issue with the Copyright Office would register the copyrights for the features it included.  And renewing the issue would also renew the copyrights to those features.

Those renewals also mean that any newspaper from May 1933 and onward running any of those renewed King Features comic strips still has some copyrighted material in it, even if there was no renewal for the newspaper itself or any of its other contents.  That may complicate cultural initiatives to put newspapers from that era online.  Later today, we’ll be releasing the draft of a guide for determining the copyright status of serials, which discusses some of the relevant issues (including that of syndicated features). I’ll have a special post on that shortly.  (Update: It’s out now.) And I’ll also discuss newspaper copyrights more in tomorrow’s calendar entry.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
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