The Disney Co.’s attempted end run around the Winnie the Pooh licensing mess ended in failure Friday when a federal judge rejected a copyright claim made by Disney and Clare Milne, granddaughter of Pooh author A.A. Milne.
As expected, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper affirmed a tentative decision that copyright law did not give Clare Milne the power to terminate a merchandising license that had been granted to Stephen Slesinger by A.A. Milne in 1930.
The Slesinger family has licensed Pooh to Disney since 1961, and that agreement has been the subject of a separate, protracted suit.
Disney attorney Daniel Petrocelli said the company would appeal. “This is an issue that will ultimately be decided by the courts of appeal and perhaps even the Supreme Court,” he said.
Slesinger attorney Bert Fields said, “Disney tried to pull a fast one on the Slesingers, and a very intelligent federal judge slapped them down. I doubt the Supreme Court will be that interested in Disney’s problems.”
In her decision, Cooper held that the 1998 Copyright Act did not grant Milne addition termination rights because it applied only to license agreements made before 1978. She found that even though the license agreement was originally made in 1930, the Slesingers and the Pooh trust made a new agreement in 1983. She also held that A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, had “a moment of freedom” to revoke the license and chose not to.
Disney and the Slesingers are in the midst of a 12-year-old lawsuit in L.A. Superior Court over disputed royalty payments, where claimed damages run as high as $1 billion. More recently, Fields has claimed that the family has the right to terminate the license.
To protect itself from the threat of termination, Disney announced in November that Clare Milne and Minette Hunt, the granddaughter of Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard, were terminating the Slesingers’ rights, effective 2004, and granting them directly to Disney.
Despite the loss on the Milne front, Petrocelli says Disney will argue that it has little or no obligation to the Slesingers because of the Hunt termination, which the court has not yet addressed, apparently because Hunt is not a party to the lawsuit.
Fields called “ludicrous” the claim that Disney would not have to pay the Slesingers because of the Hunt termination. “Shepard’s drawings were works made for hire, and there is no termination right,” Fields said.