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Who Owns the Pooh?

Brett J. Trout

As of January 1, 2022 Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain. But what does that mean? 

Can you write a book about Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too? No. 
Can you sell Winnie the Pooh branded socks? No. 
Can you start a Winnie the Pooh comic strip? Probably not. 

But why? The answer is that although the original copyright in Winnie the Pooh has moved into the public domain, the copyrights in all of his friends and all of the books published after 1926 are still in force. More importantly, all of the trademarks covering Winnie the Pooh goods and services are still in force and may never expire. 

So how did Disney come to own Winnie the Pooh? A.A. Milne published the first Winnie the Pooh book in 1926. In 1930, Milne transferred United States and Canadian rights in Winnie the Pooh to Stephen Slesinger who, in turn, transferred his rights in Winnie the Pooh to Walt Disney Productions the rights in 1961. Between 1981 and 2017 Disney has filed a dozen or so trademarks on Winnie the Pooh, covering everything from mattresses to coin purses.

If Winnie the Pooh is in the public domain, why can’t you use Winnie the Pooh however you want? Since the copyright in the original 1926 Winnie the Pooh book is in the public domain, you are free to print your own copies of that book. But since Disney owns a whole host of trademarks on Winnie the Pooh, you are not allowed to use Winnie the Pooh in any manner that would imply to the purchasing public that what you are selling is marketed, manufactured, or authorized by Disney. Unfortunately, that leaves a very narrow avenue of authorized uses, even after the 1926 work has entered into the public domain.   

What is a copyright? A copyright is the exclusive right to reproduce or distribute an original work of authorship. Copyrights protect things like books, songs, movies, etc. A copyright does not protect more abstract things like ideas, procedures, processes, systems, forms, methods of operation, concepts or principles. Since 1989, copyright protection attaches to a work as soon as it is “fixed” in a tangible medium and only last for the life of the author plus 75 years. Copying to a disk or hard drive, or ripping to a flash drive all constitute “fixation” for the purposes of copyright protection. Prior to 1989, copyrighted works like Winnie the Pooh entered into the public domain 95 years after their first publication. That is why the original Winnie the Pooh book is in the public domain, but later Winnie the Pooh books, and the characters, like Tigger, introduced in those later works, are not. 

What is a trademark? A trademark is a word or symbol (“mark”) that identifies goods or services coming from a particular source. The mark may be a word, name, phrase or symbol. By identifying goods or services as coming from a particular source, consumers can go back to that good or service time and again, relying on the quality they have grown to trust.  You only obtain trademark rights through actual use of the trademark to market a good or a service. Unlike copyrights, trademarks can last forever, as long as the owner keeps using them and keeps enforcing them against infringers. 

So while Winnie the Pooh is technically in the public domain, and you are free to copy the original 1926 Winnie the Pooh book, most of the rights in Winnie the Pooh are still owned by Disney and tightly enforced. 

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