Legacy Content

LPWire: Pooh Lawyer Dismisses Disney Sneak Attack

'Pooh' Lawyer Dismisses Disney 'Sneak Attack'

Disney's Move a Desperate Ploy to Retain Most Lucrative Franchise And Avoid Payment of up to $1 Billion, Says Bert Fields

The lawyer for the family that granted rights to The Walt Disney Co. in 1961 and 1983 responded to Disney's announcement yesterday that a Milne heir will seek to reclaim the rights and make a new deal with Disney. "Disney must be desperate to try such a cynical and devious scheme to get out of paying what it promised," said Bert Fields, lawyer for the Slesinger family, which owns U.S. and Canadian rights for Winnie the Pooh and has been in a decade-long legal battle with Disney over royalties. "This sneak attack is just their latest tactic to avoid facing the fact that they may be out up to $1 billion in back royalties and the loss of Winnie the Pooh rights."

"I am surprised Disney put this story out as if this were established fact. When the scheme doesn't work I suspect the shareholders and the public will be angry," Fields added.

In its announcement, Disney cited the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 as the legal basis for the Milne heirs to cancel the 70-year-old relationship with Slesinger and make a new deal with Disney. But Fields said Disney is wrong on the law and Disney's analysis is completely irrelevant to other major issues in this case. "They're reading the wrong section because the grant in question-the 1983 agreement-was made after 1978 and is governed by different rules," he said. "Disney's announcement that they will not pay Slesinger after two more years is a repudiation of the 1983 agreement between Disney, Slesinger and the Milnes and enormously strengthens Slesinger's claim that it can terminate Disney's rights. And, if Disney has encouraged a Milne heir to try to cancel the Milne grant to Slesinger, it may have liability going far beyond breach of contract. I can't wait to get this latest Disney maneuver in front of a jury."

The plaintiff in the case is Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, the 79-year old widow of licensing pioneer Stephen Slesinger, who teamed up with Pooh author A. A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepherd in the 1930s to expand Pooh beyond the confines of his books.

"I feel particularly bad for Leslie and Clare Milne," said Mrs. Lasswell. "I don't believe either of them had anything to do with this."

After her husband died, Mrs. Lasswell extended Pooh product and service uses in the U.S. and Canada. In 1961, she granted Pooh rights to Walt Disney himself, and in return, Milne and Slesinger received a share of gross revenues generated by Pooh product and service uses worldwide. (Disney subsequently bought out Milne's interest.)

In a ruling last June, Judge Hiroshige imposed sanctions on Disney after finding it destroyed thousands of documents in the case, including a file entitled "Winnie the Pooh Legal Problems."

--Posted November 6, 2002

Source: Bert Fields