Walt Disney Co. has won an appeals court ruling that protects the Burbank entertainment giant’s trademarks to the valuable Winnie the Pooh characters.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington upheld a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that blocked Stephen Slesinger Inc.'s challenges to Disney’s control of the trademark for the Hundred Acre Wood clan.
The ruling appears to end a 21-year legal odyssey against Disney by Stephen Slesinger’s family. Slesinger was a New York literary agent and pioneer in the marketing of cartoon characters. He was the first to see great value in promoting the befuddled bear, depressed donkey and other characters created in the 1920s by British author A.A. Milne.
Milne transferred the Pooh merchandising rights to Slesinger in 1930, and Slesinger’s widow assigned them to Disney in 1961.
Over the next four decades, Disney created a multibillion-dollar merchandising empire around Winnie the Pooh, whose popularity eclipsed that of Mickey Mouse, Disney’s longtime mascot. Pooh became Disney’s most profitable character.
In 1983, in an attempt to settle certain contract disagreements, Slesinger’s widow and daughter renegotiated the family’s agreement with Disney. But soon, the Slesingers came to believe the entertainment company was grossly underpaying them royalties for Pooh products, including for sales of then-thriving videocassette tapes.
The Slesingers sued Disney in 1991 in state court, alleging breach of contract, but the family ultimately lost that case.
The federal action, over copyright claims, followed more than a decade later.
A federal judge ruled in 2009 that the family had transferred all its Pooh rights to Disney. Because of that ruling, the appeals court said Friday that the trademark office was correct to reject the Slesingers’ challenge to Disney’s ownership.
Disney declined to comment.
“An appeal may be appropriate,” said Patricia Slesinger, daugher of Stephen Slesinger.