Today, United States district court judge, Florence-Marie Cooper, will hear the latest arguments in one of the most drawn out cases in show business legal history. On the result of the case hang billions of dollars in revenue for Walt Disney Co in what has become the case of the Mouse – Disney’s nickname in the business, from its own profitable four-legged creature – and the Bear.
Last week Judge Cooper gave a tentative ruling that Clare Milne, the author’s granddaughter, cannot reclaim merchandising rights for Winnie the Pooh. If this ruling is finalised, it would mean victory for Slesingers, the American family who acquired the rights back in 1929 and who claim that Disney owes them millions of dollars in royalties. It would mean they retain their share of royalties on Pooh merchandise – everything from videos to pyjamas – until 2024. The ruling would come as a major blow to Disney, who receive at least $1bn (£623m) of their annual $25bn revenue from AA Milne’s creation, although the Slesingers are claiming as much as $4.5bn.
Disney will be presenting their case today in a bid to persuade the judge not to finalise her ruling. They had been seeking to terminate the Slesingers’ rights under the 1998 Copyright Act which allows the heirs of a writer or artist to reclaim merchandising rights in certain circumstances.
David Nimmer, a Disney attorney, told the LA Times that they were not conceding defeat, despite the initial ruling and its implications. “We believe in the strength of our position and we look forward to presenting our case,” said Mr Nimmer. Attorneys for Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, widow of the man who acquired the rights, and his daughter, Patricia Slesinger, said the ruling would represent a “major victory”.
The legal battle of the rights has been under way for more than a decade and has already run up millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides. New York literary agent Stephen Slesinger bought the rights from AA Milne in 1929 and for years the Slesinger family have received royalties from the merchandising connected with Milne’s creation, having reached a licensing agreement with Disney in 1961. Then 12 years ago, the Slesingers claimed that Disney owed them millions of dollars in unpaid royalties, arguing that $35m from video, DVD and software sales were due.
Bert Fields, the high-profile and outspoken lawyer the family hired, pronounced last year: “We are seeking damages in the hundreds of millions and we feel very confident.”