October 2003

Book publishing, merchandising

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books have featured in a recent Chinese court decision where the state-owned Chinese Academy of Social Science Press was fined £30,000 by a district court in Beijing over its translations of Peter Rabbit and three of Potter’s other animal stories without permission. The case was brought by Frederick Warne & Co, which originally published the story in 1902 and is now a subsidiary of Penguin.
The case is not a simple copyright case as under Chinese copyright law the literary copyright expired in 1993. Frederick Warne and Co then registered the Chinese characters used in the translation of Peter Rabbit along with all of Potter’s original drawings as trademarks. In Chinese law, copyright subsists for 50 years. In the UK, Potter’s work went briefly out of copyright at the same time, 50 years after Potter’s death in 1943, only to come back into copyright in 1995 when copyright protection for literary works was extended to life of author plus seventy years under the European Directive on Copyright Duration (Directive 93/98).
The case is interesting in that the Court accepted that a new IP right was created by use of the drawings and the Chinese text even though the actual literary copyright had expired. The publishing house questioned whether characters and pictures could be trademarks, and suggested that for public domain literary works of copyright to be protected by having their titles regarded as trademarks seemed “against the principle of public order and fair practice”. And the case leaves open the possibility that new rights could be created in other public domain works when translators make their translations.

For a summary of Chinese IP Law see:

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