Friday, March 17, 2006

Peter Rabbit and the IP Lawyers

Raizel Liebler at the LibraryLaw blog has a wonderful example, featuring Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, of what makes intellectual property law so difficult to understand.

"This intellectual property cautionary tale starts because I was puzzled by the copyright notice in a historical mystery novel. Published in the United States in 2004, “Tale of Hill Top Farm” by Susan Wittig Albert is based on the life of Beatrix Potter and includes references to many of her famous characters, including Peter Rabbit, his friends, and relations. Part of the copyright notice reads:

“Frederick Warne & Co Ltd is the sole and exclusive owner of the entire rights titles and interest in and to the copyrights and trademarks of the works of Beatrix Potter, including all names and characters featured therein. No reproduction of these copyrights and trademarks may be made without the prior written consent of Frederick Warne & Co Ltd”

Several websites (and at least one book) repeat this or similar language in regards to Beatrix Potter or Peter Rabbit (though some of these sites are not in the United States).

On quick reading, a person could easily assume that this company owned the copyright in all of the Peter Rabbit books, and that therefore none of the books could be copied without permission. But is this accurate?

The simple answer is -- NO!"

- at least in the US since Peter Rabbit was first published there before 1923. Raizel then goes on to explain why the simple answer is not the end of the story. I find these children's literature IP cases fascinating and have included a number of them in a draft of chapter 3 of my book. I find the disputes engaging because the stories and objects of the disputes are engaging. Tell someone you're interested in IP and they get that panic how-can-I-escape look in their eye. Tell someone that a budding entrepreneur was flogging bad Spanish translations of a Harry Potter novel on the streets of Caracus for $25 each, within days of the book being published, and they're interested in finding out more.

The Tale of One Bunny, Copyright Statements, & Public Domain: A Cautionary Tail is a rewarding read. Well worth the effort even if you're not an intellectual property junkie.

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