High Court Sides With ‘Hooked on Phonics’ Creator

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From Bloomberg News

The creator of “Hooked on Phonics” on Tuesday won a battle in U.S. Supreme Court over the copyright for the popular system that helps children learn to read.

The high court refused to revive a lawsuit by two musicians who helped create audiotapes for the program in the 1980s. Musicians Paul Zuill and Lou Rossi claimed they were co-owners of “Hooked on Phonics,” along with creator John Shanahan and his company, Gateway Educational Products Ltd.

Zuill and Rossi asked a federal judge to recognize their rights. A federal appeals court in San Francisco, however, ruled that the two men had in effect disavowed any ownership interest in the program a decade ago and had waited too long to file a lawsuit seeking to revive their stake. The Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of that ruling.


Shanahan said the two musicians showed no interest in the copyright until “Hooked on Phonics” became successful in the 1990s.

The appeals court, Shanahan’s court brief said, “correctly precluded [Zuill and Rossi] from speculating with Mr. Shanahan’s and Gateway’s money by waiting to see if Mr. Shanahan and Gateway could make ‘Hooked on Phonics’ into a success before asserting their co-ownership claims.”

After developing the system in 1987 to help his son learn to read, Shanahan built Orange-based Gateway into a profitable company with gross sales that reportedly reached $150 million in 1994. The “Hooked on Phonics” system includes flash cards and musical tapes.

Shanahan said he notified Zuill and Rossi on two occasions in 1986 and 1987 that he considered his company to be the sole copyright owner of “Hooked on Phonics.” After receiving those notices, Shanahan said, the two musicians faced a three-year time limit for lodging any legal claim to ownership. Their 1991 lawsuit, he said, was filed too late.

The two musicians argued that federal copyright law grants ownership rights that last for the life of the author, plus 50 years. They said they gained ownership in the copyright when they helped create “Hooked on Phonics” and that they shouldn’t suffer just because they waited several years before asking a court to affirm their rights.

Gateway settled false-advertising charges pressed by the Federal Trade Commission in June 1995. Publicity from the settlement led to sharply decreased sales and the company filed for bankruptcy that fall. Shanahan has said he plans to revamp the company to focus on teaching English as a second language.


The case is Zuill vs. Shanahan, 96-119.