When I was in college in the early 80s, I had a part-time job during the holiday season at one of Baltimore’s tonier department stores ~ Hutzler’s. I was both voices of the nearly life-sized puppet reindeer couple Tinsel and Beau.
My Career on Stage
Tinsel and Beau lived in a little snow covered cottage in a section of the store cordoned off by purple velvet rope. Inside the rope next to their cottage was a beautifully adorned Christmas tree with shimmering presents piled high underneath. When you walked up to Tinsel and Beau's house, you walked into Christmas magic.
Mothers brought their children and teachers brought their young students to be entertained by these wondrous creatures in the days leading up to Christmas. I sat inside a cramped little wooden box with one arm extended through Tinsel’s neck operating her mouth and moving her head and my other arm doing the same with Beau. I spoke through a microphone with my best girl and boy reindeer impersonations.
The children asked questions, we’d sing songs together, or I would read Christmas stories while they sat in (mostly) rapt attention. One of the most common questions was whether we helped pull Santa’s sleigh. . . because we were in the song, weren’t we? And besides, where was Rudolph? Did we know Rudolph?
Tinsel and Beau were reindeer characters created by someone in Hutzler’s marketing department and I wasn’t given much training when I took the job. "Climb in there and start talking," was about it. So I had to create a whole backstory to fit into the well-known North Pole fairy tale.
At the time (before I became a creative protectionist), I thought it was pretty silly that Hutzler’s didn’t use Prancer and Dancer or Comet and Vixen as their holiday reindeer attractions – clearly more high profile reindeer couples – or even Rudolph alone. Reindeer with an already well known backstory.
It turns out that Hutzler’s knew what it was doing when it created Tinsel and Beau. Over the years, Tinsel and Beau became identified with Hutzler’s in Baltimore. They were part of Hutzler’s holiday marketing and branding concept. That kind of identification is what trademark rights are all about - source identification. And by creating their own proprietary reindeer personalities, Hutzler’s avoided infringing the most famous reindeer of all.
Rudolf is Protected by Copyright
The story of Rudolph and his copyright protection is a lovely lesson in authorship, the nuances of copyright ownership, and holiday goodwill — all in one package. Here’s how it goes:
During the Great Depression, Chicago-based department store Montgomery Ward bought coloring books to give to children at Christmas. In the late ‘30s, they decided that it would be less expensive to have one of their employees create a children’s story rather than to buy preprinted storybooks on the market.
In 1939, Robert L. May, a poet who worked for Montgomery Ward was given the assignment. May had a young daughter to whom he read his story as he wrote it to make sure it would resonate with his intended audience. It was a fabulous success in its first year and almost 2 ½ million copies were given away for free that Christmas by the store.
Because May was an employee of Montgomery Ward, the copyright in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was owned and registered by the company as a "work for hire."
Rudolph's 1939 Copyright
During the war years, there was a paper shortage and Montgomery Ward was unable to reprint and give the story away again until 1946. That year, it soared once more to popularity with an additional 5 million copies being distributed.
In 1947, May was approached by a New York house that wanted to publish the story as a book and sell it. Other publishers had considered the idea but passed on it because so many copies had already been given away for free.
Download Our 1-page Fair Use Guide
Use this quick and easy guide to help you decide whether a use you plan to make of someone else's work is fair, or if someone has made fair use of your work.
May told the publisher, Maxton Books for Little People, that he couldn’t agree to a publishing deal because he didn’t own the copyright in the story he had written.
Apparently, that state of affairs didn’t sit well with those in charge at Montgomery Ward and the president of the company, Sewall Avery, gave May back the copyright in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The book was published on October 4, 1947.
Rudolph's 1947 Copyright
The 1947 catalog entry references the 1939 version. There's probably an official transfer document somewhere assigning the rights from Montgomery Ward to May. Searching the copyright records before 1978 can be a hit-or-miss challenge. Searching transfer documents would probably take a trip to Washington and the assistance of the reference librarians at the Copyright Office.
Under the copyright law in effect before the Copyright Act of 1976, in order to maintain rights, the owner had to renew the copyright in the 28th year after registration.
Mr. May took care of business and renewed his copyright in Rudolf in 1967.
Rudolph's 1967 Renewal
The copyright in the 1939 version of Rudolph expires in 2034 at which point it enters the public domain. The children's TV show was created in 1964 and, most likely, is protected by a new copyright and a series of licenses.
Robert L. May died in 1976. But before he did, he established The Rudolph Company that holds the rights to Rudolph. Licenses are managed by a professional agency all to the benefit of Mr. May's children and grandchildren.
What makes this a holly-jolly Christmas story for me is knowing that the heirs of someone who would have been an unknown author are still benefiting from copyright protection, properly registered and renewed, that was returned to him by an employer who couldn't have been less Scrooge-like.