After 18 years of dueling lawsuits, courtroom clashes and allegations of impropriety, Walt Disney Co. finally can close the storybook on its battle with the family that holds lucrative rights to Winnie the Pooh.
On Friday, a federal judge ruled in favor of Disney by granting the company’s motion to dismiss a copyright and trademark infringement claim brought by the family of Stephen Slesinger, who was a pioneer in the commercialization of cartoon characters.
In 1930, Slesinger acquired the Pooh merchandising rights from British author A.A. Milne, who created the popular children’s stories. After Slesinger died, his widow assigned the family’s rights to Disney, which eventually turned the honey-loving bear into a multibillion-dollar franchise and the Burbank entertainment giant’s most profitable character.
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper determined that Disney -- not the Slesinger family -- controlled the copyright and trademark to the bear and his forest friends.
“Stephen Slesinger Inc. transferred all of its rights in the Pooh works to Disney, and may not now claim infringement of any retained rights,” Cooper wrote in her ruling.
Cooper’s decision -- which brings to an end the two lawsuits outstanding -- means that Disney is free to exploit Pooh. However, the company must continue to pay royalties to the Slesinger family when Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang appear in movies, merchandise and other products.
“We are pleased with the ruling of the federal court dismissing all of SSI’s remaining claims,” Disney said Monday in a statement.
The legal feud dates to 1991. That year, the Slesinger family sued Disney for breach of contract, alleging the company was not fully disclosing the amount of its Pooh sales nor was it paying sufficient royalties as outlined in a 1983 licensing agreement.
The breach-of-contract lawsuit was ultimately thrown out when a state judge found misconduct on the part of the Slesingers. Private investigators hired by family members turned up secret Disney documents, which the state judge determined were stolen in an effort to give the Slesingers an unfair advantage in the lawsuit.
After that case ended, the drama shifted into federal court, where the two sides concentrated their efforts on copyright claims. Disney two years ago asked the federal judge, Cooper, to terminate the company’s obligation to pay royalties to the Slesingers but was unsuccessful.
Slesinger’s daughter, Patricia Slesinger, said Monday that she hoped the latest Cooper ruling would allow the two sides to cooperate with each other, as they once did.
“Judge Florence Cooper provided a potential and elegant middle-ground solution that will allow us to go forward with our business relationship -- hopefully without more litigation,” Slesinger said.