Mouse, Pooh Kin Lose Appeal in Rights Fight

The long-running saga of the Winnie-the-Pooh rights-fight won’t soon be over, but it has closed at least one chapter. Perhaps.

In the latest development, the Pooh rights holders suing the Walt Disney Co. over royalty payments are claiming a victory after a federal appeals court blocked a bid by Disney to get the rights transferred back to them. Among other things, the ruling by the Ninth Circuit court denied an effort by Disney to recapture the rights under copyright to Winnie-the-Pooh from the Slesinger family. The Slesingers have held North American Pooh merchandising rights since Stephen Slesinger bought them from Pooh author A.A. Milne in 1929.

The Slesingers subsequently assigned their rights to Disney in 1961. In 1983, Disney convinced the heirs of A.A. Milne and the Slesingers to enter a new agreement. “Ironically, in 1983 Disney went to extraordinary lengths to pressure the Slesingers to sign a new agreement, the very agreement Disney has sought to repudiate,” says Slesinger attorney Roger Zissu.

Pooh product is estimated to be worth between $3 billion and $6 billion in annual revenue. The Slesinger family has asked for a judgment that would include compensatory damages of at least $700 million, unspecified punitive damages, and the right to terminate all future rights of Disney to exploit Winnie-the-Pooh characters.

Disney discounted the ruling’s significance, saying that the real issues should be addressed next month when plaintiffs Shirley Slesinger Lasswell and daughter Pati Slesinger may be forced to testify in state court as to whether their investigators stole thousands of confidential documents from Disney to gain an unfair advantage at trial.

Trial on the 12-year-old dispute is tentatively set for Jan. 10, 2005, in Los Angeles Superior Court.