Disney Gets Rights Over Winnie the Pooh Trademark
On Dec. 21, a federal appeals court upheld the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision that allows Walt Disney Co. to maintain control of the trademark for the Winnie the Pooh franchise. This 2-1 ruling could possibly be the ending to an ongoing legal battle that has lasted decades.
Disney’s trademark ownership of Winnie the Pooh (and his Hundred Acre Wood entourage) was initially challenged by the family of Stephen Slesinger, a literary agent who first saw the marketing value in the characters. In the 1930’s, Winnie the Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, granted Slesinger exclusive merchandising rights to the characters. Slesigner and his family later assigned the rights to Walt Disney Co. in the 1960’s. In 1983, the Slesinger family agreed to take back and re-assign the rights to Walt Disney Co. Following this transfer, there was a disagreement between the parties over the amount of rights retained by the Slesingers, which caused the family to take legal action in 1991, and eventually led to the recent appeals court decision. The Slesinger family contends it retained rights in Winnie the Pooh and is entitled to DVD, movie, ancillary content, and merchandising royalties. Disney, on the other hand, maintains Slesinger assigned all rights to Walt Disney Co. in the 1983 agreement. The family has been back and forth with Disney in the courts and Patent and Trademark Office in an attempt to sort out the rights agreements.
Slesinger was a visionary of his time, and helped introduce the iconic franchise into American culture. After this decision, the Slesinger family does not have many legal options unless the case gets re-reviewed or taken to the Supreme Court. One might wonder if the Slesinger family retains any rights at all to the Winnie the Pooh empire. In the dissent, Judge Jimmie Reyna stated that a 2009 Central Court of California decision “appears to suggest that Slesinger retained some rights to the Pooh trademarks, but that any rights retained were insufficient to support an infringement action.” Meanwhile, Walt Disney Co. is rumored to be rebooting the Winnie the Pooh franchise. This decision would certainly give Disney a greater incentive to do so, as the company won’t have to worry about sharing royalties with the Slesinger family.