by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
June 26, 2006
U.S. SUPREME COURT TURNS DOWN DISNEY APPEAL IN POOH CASE
BRADENTON, Fla. -- In a major setback to the Walt Disney Corp.'s efforts to recapture near-priceless rights to Winnie The Pooh merchandise from the original licensees, the United States Supreme Court refused without comment Monday to hear an appeal of Los Angeles Federal Court Judge Florence Cooper's 2003 decision denying the studio the right to terminate a 1983 agreement with Pooh's licensor and buy future rights from descendants of British children's author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shephard, The American Reporter has learned.
The case involved obscure provisions of the 1978 Copyright Act allowing artists the right to restrict uses of their work when the rights near expiration. The studio paid the legal bills for A.A. Milne's granddaughter, Claire Milne, to bring the case, in which it was a co-plaintiff. Claire Milne was born after her grandfather's death and is severely disabled; her estate is managed by Michael Brown, who brought the case after allegedly receiving a $500,000 payment from Disney.
Disney had reached an agreement with descendants of Milne and Shephard several years ago to recapture the rights in return for substantial payments. The rights were granted by contract in 1929 and 1930 to Stephen Slesinger, the husband and father of the SSI plaintiffs Shirley and Patricia Slesinger, and since 1983 have generated vast incomes for both Disney and the family.
But the decision means that Disney's three-and-a-half-year effort to "recapture" the rights has come to an end. San Francisco's 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal had ruled that a renegotiation of the 1983 agreement foreclosed any opportunity for the Milne or Shephard family to recapture any rights under the 1978 Copyright Act.
A spokesman for the Slesinger family characterized the Disney pleadings as an extended effort to cast doubt on the value of the family's holdings and to distract the media from a state case that continues to make its way to the California Supreme Court after 17 years in litigation. The Federal appeals court said Disney's case had "no basis in law or equity."
"This was just a three-year delaying tactic," the spokesperson said, adding that had Disney won the case it might have been able to discontinue the contracts but would have lost merchandising rights, which are subject to trademark and not copyright protections, the spokesperson said. "The only reason Disney didn't win was because they didn't want to win," she said. "They would have lost the exclusivity to Pooh."