Federal court pooh-poohs Mouse claim

Judge downgrades suit after Milne rights are ruled on

A judge sent the decade-old Winnie the Pooh case back to state court Tuesday after only three weeks in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper found the copyright issue that had prompted the move to federal court is now moot.

In April, the Disney Co. moved the case from L.A. Superior Court to U.S. District Court, claiming the state case contained copyright issues that should be determined in conjunction with a copyright suit Disney filed last year in federal court. Earlier this month, the federal court tossed out Disney’s copyright claim.

The plaintiffs, the Slesinger family, opposed the removal to federal court. Their attorney, Bonnie Eskenazi, said Tuesday they were thrilled with the ruling.

Disney attorney Daniel Petrocelli downplayed its significance.

In the state court case, filed in 1991, the Slesinger family, which has licensed Winnie the Pooh to Disney since 1961, claims it has been cheated out of royalty payments. Damage estimates run as high as $1 billion.

Last year, Disney announced that Clare Milne and Minette Hunt, the granddaughters of Pooh author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard, respectively, were terminating the Slesinger family’s license, effective 2004, and granting rights directly to Disney. Disney immediately brought a suit in federal court in Los Angeles seeking a judgment that the terminations were valid.

In response to Disney’s copyright suit, the Slesingers amended their state lawsuit to address Disney’s obligations under the license agreement in the event the terminations were valid.

Earlier this month, Judge Cooper ruled that copyright law did not give Clare Milne the power to terminate the license that had been granted to Stephen Slesinger by A.A. Milne in 1930. The court did not address Hunt’s termination notice because she is not a party to the lawsuit.

In Tuesday’s order, Judge Cooper remanded the case to state court and dismissed the Slesingers’ new claim as moot because of her earlier ruling that the Milne termination notice was invalid. As for Hunt, Cooper ruled that because she was not a party to the suit, there was no issue before the court.

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