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Robert Trigaux

Long legal war over Winnie the Pooh billions pitting Tampa family vs. Disney coming to end

29

September

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Wake up and good morning. Who would have thought a little old bear with a love for honey would become the reason for years upon years of litigation pitting a former Tampa family against mighty Walt Disney Co.?

A U.S. judge in Los Angeles dismissed remaining claims by the estate of long-time Winnie the Pooh licensee Stephen Slesinger against Disney in a copyright infringement case, court documents showed on Monday. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper brings to a close a legal battle waged since 1991 in several venues over potentially billions of dollars in royalties.

Here are a Reuters story and today's Los Angeles Times article offering more details. (AP Photo:Winnie the Pooh celebrates his 80th anniversary in 2006 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)

The upshot, as the LA Times story says: "Disney is free to exploit Pooh. However, the company must continue to pay royalties to the Slesinger family when Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang appear in movies, merchandise and other products." So the Slesingers "lose" their lawsuit but don't go away penniless. 

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Stephen Slesinger Inc. still has a claim against Disney pending before U.S. patent regulators, a Disney spokeswoman said, according to Reuters. Slesinger ( see photo) was a New York TV and film producer who obtained the exclusive merchandising and other rights to the Pooh works from author A.A. Milne in 1930. Slesinger died in 1953 but his heirs transferred the Pooh rights to Disney in 1961 exchange for a regular royalty.

Slesinger's heirs first sued Disney in California state court, claiming the entertainment giant had commingled Pooh and Mickey Mouse revenue to avoid paying them more than $700 million in royalties. Pooh's merchandising sales numbers are huge -- in the billions -- outstripping Mickey Mouse and, at one time, all the Disney-owned characters.

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Aside from nearly everyone loving the Pooh story, we care because Stephen Slesinger's widow, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell (see early photo), lived in Tampa for years. We spoke back when she was still alive and had the fire in the belly to continue fighting Disney in court for Pooh royalties. Here's my 2001 column about the Pooh fight back then.

Shirley later moved to California to be with her daughter, Pati Slesinger. Shirley died in 2007 at age 84. Here's an obit and a terrific shot of Shirley with Winnie the Pooh.

(Slesinger photos courtesy of Stephen Slesinger Inc.)

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 12:26pm]

    

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