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I started working on my own designs to sell and had someone come and asked me if I could put a classic Winnie the Pooh image in my design.

I am selling the whole piece to this customer, but can I sell it to them if I put the Winnie the Pooh image on the poster?

I was going to purchase the image on Etsy but I know that it's copyrighted so I'm not sure if I'm able to do that.

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    This is a question for a lawyer... but if it were me... absolutely not.
    – Scott
    Apr 12, 2014 at 0:44
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    Disney owns Winnie. They have lawyers. Lots of them. That said, people pay for one-off custom things all the time featuring copyrighted characters (such as a mural for one's nursery). Just don't let Disney find out. :)
    – DA01
    Apr 12, 2014 at 3:03
  • Disney owns their version of Winnie the Pooh. Methuen owns the original Shepard drawings and of course, you can draw your own which are bound to be very similar... Apr 12, 2014 at 7:54
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    That user at Etsy could find they are in trouble. Chances are slim they'll be caught, but what they are doing is an infringement of the Disney copyrights, regardless of all their mumbjo jumbo. They are making money off the use of a copyrighted image. It is more amusing that they also try and implement some sort of copyright protection for themselves when they are clearly infringing upon others.
    – Scott
    Apr 16, 2014 at 20:19
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    What you should do is explain to your client that you can not use Disney characters without Disney permission. There's no room for negotiation on that. See here: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/26844/…
    – Scott
    Apr 16, 2014 at 20:21

4 Answers 4

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There is a lot of very valuable information on the comments, so I summarized them (very shortly) here to keep this question from being marked as unanswered.

Winnie The Pooh is a Disney copyrighted character, and as such can't be used for commercial purposes without acquiring the proper rights for it. The images available on Etsy that you mention, even if they say they are for personal use, are infringing the law.

Related question:

How to handle client requests to violate copyrights?

(mandatory) Note: I am not a lawyer.

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  • A.A. Milne died in 1956. But Disney's idea of copyright is the lifetime of Mickey Mouse, plus 70 years. Sometimes I forget how important and rational the law is...always nice when people retain ownership of things that architect your mind, especially things they didn't create themselves! "Life. Do you want to continue?" Apr 24, 2014 at 5:37
  • Disney's idea of copyright is "Ours, all ours, forever and ever and ever!"
    – DA01
    Apr 24, 2014 at 6:20
  • Unfortunately it's not only Disney's. Copyright was conceived to enable creators of intellectual wealth to financially support themselves, now anything is subject to copyright/patents, from a round-cornered rectangle to basmati rice.
    – Yisela
    Apr 24, 2014 at 7:05
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Probably not, but maybe, to a limited extent, you can soon.

This is specific to the United States of America, as it's the law I'm familiar with. If you're doing business in another country, the details about copyright expiration dates and fair use will vary.

This is all as of 2021, but I'll note expected changes in 2022 and 2024.

As of 2021, almost everything Winnie the Pooh related is still protected by copyright. Is is possible to commercially use something protected by someone else's copyright, but if you're just decorating something, probably not. The details of what you can do are Fair Use law, which is complex, nuanced, and potentially irrelevant if the copyright holder's lawyers have enough money to bankrupt you. To very crudely summarize, the closer your work is to non-profit, transformative, academic commentary that uses a small amount of the material and doesn't compete with the original, the more likely it is to be Fair Use. But it's super fuzzy. (And if anyone tells you that "the four factors" represent some sort of easy to interpret test, they don't understand the law in question.)

As background, Winnie the Pooh was created by A. A. Milne, originally in the poem "Teddy Bear" from his collection When We Were Very Young, where Pooh is named Edward Bear. Edward was illustrated in that and later books by Ernest Shepard. In the first book of Pooh stories, Winnie the Pooh, Milne notes that Christopher Robin has renamed Edward Bear to Winnie-the-Pooh. The relevant publication dates are:

Source Copyright Holder(s) Publication Year Copyright Expires
"Teddy Bear" (in When We Were Very Young) Milne/Shepard 1924 2020 (Expired!)
Winnie the Pooh Milne/Shepard 1926 2022 (Imminent!)
The House at Pooh Corner Milne/Shepard 1928 2024 (Soonish)
"Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" Walt Disney Productions 1966 2061

Edward Bear originally appears in A.A. Milne's "Teddy Bear" in his poem collection When We Were Very Young. We don't get a lot of description beyond "short and fat." It does include illustrations by Ernest Shepard. That entire book is out of copyright in the United States (and, I believe most of the work). That is to say, they're now in the public domain and you can use the text and illustrations as you like. Note that the illustrations in question and black and white line drawings. Any color versions you find were created later and have a later copyright expiration date.

As of 2021 you are limited to Milne's 1924 words (so it's Edward Bear, not Winnie the Pooh) and Shepard's 1924 black-and-white line drawings (so no color and is distinct from the Disney popularized design).

As of 2022, Winnie the Pooh's copyright expires. At that point the words and art in that book will be fair game. Again, no color, and use Shepard's style through 1926, not Disney's later style. But, you can call the bear Winnie the Pooh!

But... Disney has a trademark on the name "Winnie the Pooh." You can still use it, but if Disney can successfully convince a court that you've confused customers into thinking you sell Official Disney Winnie the Pooh products, you're doomed. Definitely do not title anything you create "Winnie the Pooh"; beyond that, good luck.

As of 2024 both of Milne's short story collections about Pooh, and the art Shepard provided, will be public domain.

But Disney's design doesn't expire until at least 2061. Disney's first Pooh short film is 1966, and in many ways the public idea of Winnie the Pooh is dominated by Disney's interpretation. Disney's Pooh looks similar, but is different. The coloration is, I believe, entirely Disney's creation. If you go anywhere near Disney's design you're at high risk. That design won't enter the public domain until 2061, and even then you're at risk until Disney's later works all expire.

Some cursory research suggests that Winnie the Pooh's copyright might last a few years longer in Great Britain. The United States copyright durations are longer than many countries; so depending on where you are, it's possibly it's already in the public domain. On the other hand, the United States is trying to get other countries to sign on to longer durations. And it's always possible that the United States will extend its own durations again, but it's practically impossible before 2022 and unlikely to happen by 2024.

(I expect it's much too late for my answer to be useful to the original querent, but as I stumbled across this while researching Pooh copyright expiration dates for myself, I figure it might be useful to others on a similar search.)

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You need not to be a lawyer for this, copyright is NOT patent. You might want to look at Berne Convention and its applicability.

Berne Convention, Berne also spelled Bern, formally International Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, international copyright agreement adopted by an international conference in Bern (Berne) in 1886 and subsequently modified several times (Berlin, 1908; Rome, 1928; Brussels, 1948; Stockholm, 1967; and Paris, 1971). Signatories of the Convention constitute the Berne Copyright Union.

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  • Welcome to the community user22557, when answering questions try to elaborate a bit more. When you answer so short, especially without much rep, it gets flagged for review. If you expand on the answer for example how the Berne Convention applies its less likely to be flagged for removal and may even be marked the correct answer.
    – Ryan
    Apr 24, 2014 at 16:22
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The illustrator of the first classic Pooh images holds the copyright for them in the Shepard trust I was told. Disney changed the images (Pooh wearing a shirt). Are you sure Disney He all images of Characters- even Shepard’s?

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    Welcome! This is more an comment or a new question than an answer ... Can you explain better?
    – Mensch
    Jan 23, 2019 at 13:44

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