A Mouse in the Honey Jar

Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of the tree, put his head between his paws and began to think.

First of all he said to himself: " ... The only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.”

Then he thought for another long time, and said: “And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey.”

And then he got up, and said: “And the only reason for making honey is so that I can eat it.”



Winnie the Pooh began life not as a loyal retainer in the House of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck but as a gentle, befuddled character in a father’s bedtime story for his son. A teddy bear from London’s Harrod’s department store was A.A. Milne’s birthday gift in 1921 to his 1-year-old son, Christopher Robin. The stories Milne wove around that stuffed bear, published in 1926, were the writer’s gift to generations of children.

The Disney company got into the act in 1961, buying the Pooh clan from Stephen Slesinger Inc., a literary agency to which Milne sold his merchandizing rights in 1930. Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the others now may generate more than $4 billion a year for Disney’s empire and licensees.

In 1991, Stephen Slesinger’s heirs sued Disney, claiming that the media behemoth had cheated them out of $200 million in royalties from Pooh-related videos, DVDs, computer software and Pooh attractions at theme parks. For 11 years, Disney has pooh-poohed that claim, insisting that the deal with Slesinger, revised most recently in 1983, bound Disney to pay royalties on only a limited line of Pooh products, including apparel and stuffed animals.

The fraud and breach-of-contract suit will go to trial later this year. In the meantime, the mouse appears to have gotten its head stuck in the bear’s honey pot. Secret company memos and other documents unsealed by the trial judge last week reveal that Disney executives knew early on that the company’s right to profit from the furry creatures in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood were far from exclusive.

“A.A. Milne has certainly and completely balled up his rights to Winnie the Pooh in America,” harrumphed Walt’s brother, Roy Disney, in a 1967 memo. “If we were to do anything with Winnie the Pooh, Slesinger is in a beautiful spot to either hold us up for an outrageous price or ... reap the rewards of our work and investment.”

Add to that the $90,000 the judge fined Disney in August upon learning the company had destroyed 40 boxes of documents, including one labeled “Winne the Pooh--legal problems.” In all, things right now don’t look so good for the mouse.



“Eeyore,” said Owl, “Christopher Robin is giving a party.”

“Very interesting,” said Eeyore. “I suppose they will be sending me down the odd bits which got trodden on. Kind and Thoughtful. Not at all, don’t mention it.”