| A Disney employee with stuffed Winnie the Pooh bears in Tokyo. (AFP)
Los Angeles, May 2 (Reuters): A US federal judge has ruled tentatively that the granddaughter of Winnie the Pooh’s creator could not have the US marketing rights to the lovable bear, her lawyer said yesterday, delivering a blow to the Walt Disney Co. in its fight for Pooh’s financial honeypot.
If finalised, the ruling would be a major victory for Stephen Slesinger Inc., the company that currently holds the Pooh copyright and has been a thorn in the side of Disney for more than two decades, filing lawsuits and claiming Disney owes it millions in back royalty payments.
Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of the US district court in Los Angeles has reviewed the copyright case and will hear oral arguments on Monday. But in her initial ruling designed to clarify the legal issues in the case, Cooper held that Clare Milne could not use a change in US copyright law to reclaim the US rights to Winnie the Pooh next year, her lawyer David Nimmer said.
Her grandfather, British author A.A. Milne, sold the US rights in 1930 to American literary agent Stephen Slesinger.
Nimmer stressed that the ruling was not final. “We are confident in the strength of our position,” he said. Other people familiar with the case said that such initial judgments were rarely changed. Disney, which makes about $1 billion of Pooh-related merchandise each year under the disputed contract with Slesinger, joined Milne asking the court for a judgment on her behalf, although it did not ask for assignment of the US rights to itself.
Disney has said it made a deal with Milne to continue making Pooh products if she won and their efforts were seen as a bid to undermine the Slesinger side or at least put extra pressure on it in a closely watched multi-million dollar battle over stuffed animals and decals on children’s clothing.
Disney has said a ruling against it in its legal battle with Slesinger could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and it recently asked a federal court to remove the case from the California superior court, which has been hearing it for the last decade. Disney argued the change in court jurisdiction was required since the copyright issue — a federal matter — had been raised.
Slesinger lawyer Bonnie Eskenazi said that Disney's efforts to change courts was a bid to draw out the case for even more years.“It is one of Disney's classic delay tactics,” she said.