A 21-year legal battle ended last week, as a federal court ruling protected Disney’s trademark of the characters of Winnie the Pooh. The U.S. Federal Court of Appeals upheld a decision set by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which blocked challenges to Disney’s trademark by Stephen Slesinger Inc.
Stephen Slesinger, a New York literary agent and pioneer in cartoon character marketing, was the first to see the potential in A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh characters, and Milne transferred the characters’ merchandise rights to Slesinger in 1930. Following Slesinger’s death, his widow then assigned the rights to Disney in 1961.
The Slesinger’s agreement with Disney was renegotiated in 1983 in order to settle certain contract disagreements. By that point, Disney had turned Winnie the Pooh into a major global franchise; Pooh had become one of the most well-known and profitable Disney characters, and the company was able to build a multi-million dollar merchandising empire around the beloved characters. Soon after the contract renegotiation, the family became embittered with Disney and believed the company to be grossly underpaying the family in royalties for the various Pooh products.
In 1991, the Slesinger’s legal struggle against Disney began, as the family sued Disney in state court, alleging breach of contract. The family ultimately lost that case, and in 2009, a federal judge ruled that the Slesingers’ Pooh rights had been completely transferred to Disney. Because of that 2009 ruling, the federal appeals court was able to give its ruling last Friday, which deemed it correct for the trademark office to reject the family’s challenge to Disney’s ownership, thus hopefully putting this long legal struggle to rest.