As if it didn't have enough problems with a soft ad market and a sinking stock price, the Walt Disney Co. has revealed to shareholders that it may owe several hundred million dollars because of a silly old bear. In 1961 Disney licensed certain rights to the character of Winnie-the-Pooh from literary agent Stephen Slesinger, who had acquired U.S. merchandising rights from A.A. Milne, author of the books featuring Pooh and Christopher Robin. That contract made no mention of videotapes, computer games or DVDs--because such uses either didn't exist or weren't widespread when the deal was made.
Now, though, Disney's sales of Pooh products, including videos, DVDs and interactive storybooks, bring in more than $4 billion a year, making Pooh the most popular Disney character, ahead of even Mickey, according to lawyers for the heirs of Slesinger, now deceased. Disney denies that math, but the heirs are suing for back royalties of $500 million to $1 billion and unspecified punitive damages. They even want a share of profits from theme-park rides like Pooh's Honey Hunt in Tokyo.
Disney claims that it owes no royalties to Slesinger because the new uses of Pooh are included in film rights, which it licenses directly from Milne's estate. A judge and jury will decide who is right when the case comes to trial in Los Angeles next year.
Lawsuits over "digital rights" have swelled court dockets as artists and publishers disagree over who controls a new medium when an old contract is silent. Since the advent of film and then TV, each technological advance has caused a scramble to define ownership. But the issue has taken on heightened importance as new venues for copyrighted works increase the potential revenue from popular characters and stories. Characters can now be franchised from a book to a film and could eventually exist continuously on television, video, DVD and the Internet.
"As technology has blossomed, it has expanded the ways to exploit intellectual property and added greater value," says Joseph Beard, a professor at St. John's University School of Law. Yet as the new rights become more valuable, such old-media distributors of content as publishers and photo agencies are discovering a new willingness by courts to leave them out in the cold.
When Random House signed publishing contracts in the '60s with such well-known authors as Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron, it included expansive language claiming all rights to publish the works in "book form." To the company's surprise, a federal appeals court recently affirmed a ruling that this language probably did not apply to electronic versions, or e-books. The lower court reasoned that because e-books are made up of changing digital signals sent over the Internet rather than of fixed texts on printed pages, they were not "books" under a traditional definition.