From British Book to US Theater
Who doesn’t love Winnie the Pooh? In “The House at Pooh Corner” A.A. Milne introduced Winne the Pooh, Kanga, Tigger, Eeyore and the other characters that live in the hundred acre wood of Christopher Robin’s imagination. The book, illustrated by E.H. Sheperd, was an instant success and in 1930’s the agreement for US rights was reached between Author A.A. Milne and Illustrator Stephen Slesinger. Disney purchased the US rights in the 1960’s and a legend was born when the animated classics in the original Winnie the Pooh series first reached theaters and in 1969 Slesinger transferred exclusive merchandising rights over to Disney.
Due to the nature of the Disney animated characters being so very different from the original drawings, and the popularity of the Pooh Bear movies, Disney was the one enlisted to market all of the Pooh merchandise including books, games, toys, stuffed animals, movies and all sorts of assorted products from key chains to mugs to board games, and the productivity of the Winnie the Pooh characters became a multi-million-dollar business, a fact that did not slip by Slesinger’s heirs.
The Licensing Battle Begins
In 1991, the Slesingers sued Disney, claiming that the merchandising agreement of 1969 was being violated and asked for ‘their share’ of the profits Pooh had thus far generated, but their case was thrown out when it was shown that Slesinger had stolen documents from Milne (as supported by the Author’s granddaughter).
The case re-opened in 2005 when Slesinger’s heirs once again tried to gain a percentage of the merchandising profits made by Disney in relation to Pooh Bear and the other Pooh Bear characters, but as of 2011 Disney now owns exclusive and sole rights to all the rights (US and Worldwide) of Winnie the Pooh and his illustrious hundred acre wood crowd.
Character Licensing Issues Spawned by Pooh
While today’s cartoon characters are subjected to all manner of legal specifications when contracts are being drawn up, the licensing specifications of the 1930’s were much broader and did not include details for the kind of production and merchandising that Pooh Bear and his cohorts were about to be subjected to. Even the turnover of merchandising rights in 1969 could not possibly have foreseen the sheer volume of merchandise that would be generated by a stuffed bear and his companions.
It is the very nature of this Winnie the Pooh debate that has spurred legal contracts in the Cartoon Character Licensing fields to leave open-ended clauses that cover any and all possible future technologies and merchandising fields and/or opportunities to ensure that these sorts of battles do not become an issue in the future.