Friday, August 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Christopher Robin

On August 21, 1920, Christoper Robin was born in Chelsea to Alan Alexander and Dorothy Milne. A.A. Milne had been a writer for the humorous Punch magazine and was becoming renown in London as a playwright. Several years after Christopher Robin's birth, the Milnes moved to a farm in Sussex near a forest that became the inspiration for the 100-Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. A.A. Milne died in 1956 and Christopher Robin passed away on April 20, 1996.

The copyright transfer aspects relating to the Winnie-the-Pooh work are interesting. In 1930, Milne gave an exclusive license to Stephen Slesinger to license merchandise in the U.S. to the Winnie-the-Pooh property. The term of this license extended to the term of the copyright and the renewal term. The copyrights in the Pooh stories were timely renewed, and in 1961 Slesinger exclusively transferred to Walt Disney Productions the rights that Slesinger had under the original 1930 grant. Disney further obtained motion picture rights from Alan's widow.

On January 1, 1978, the 1976 Copyright Act took effect and the renewal term of the Pooh work was extended from 56 years to 75 years. Following Dorothy's death, and in 1983, Christopher Robin, Slesinger and Disney entered into a new agreement revoking the 1930 and 1961 grants, granting new rights to Slesinger and providing enhanced royalties to Christopher Robin. Slesinger was granted new Pooh rights relating to radio, TV, film and merchandise. Slesinger, in turn, transferred these rights to Disney. Christopher Robin further agreed not to exercise the new law's statutory right of termination as to the 1930 and 1961 grants.

In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act took effect, adding new Sect. 304(d) to the Copyright Act, and granting new termination rights to authors and authors' heirs as to the last 20 years of the extended renewal term. In 2002, Christopher Robin's only child, Clare Milne, sought to terminate (with some aid and comfort from Disney) the 1930 Slesinger grant pursuant to the new termination rights of Sect. 304(d). In seeking to do so, she sought to unravel the foundation for the 1983 agreement granting enhanced rights to Slesinger. Following considerable litigation, the Ninth Circuit held that Clare could not terminate the 1930 grant because it no longer existed by virtue of the agreed-upon revocation in 1983. Further, Clare could not seek to terminate the 1983 grant to Slesinger since Sect. 304 only permits termination of post-1978 grants made by an author -- in this case, A.A. Milne. Since the 1983 grant was not made by the author, but by the author's son, it was not subject to termination.

The Ninth Circuit case is Milne ex rel. Coyne v. Stephen Slesinger, Inc., 430 F.3d 1036 (9th Cir. 2005). A very similar set of facts, and outcome, but dealing with an attempt by John Steinbeck's heirs to terminate the transfer of rights to his literary heritage, is Penguin Group (USA) Inc. v. Steinbeck (2d Cir. 2008).

Finally of note, the mathematical exercise to calculate the termination of copyright in the Pooh stories suggests that the copyright in Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926, will terminate in 2021, or in about 12 years hence, under current law. Oh, bother.

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