Who Owns Rudolph’s Nose? - Creative Law Center

Who Owns Rudolph’s Nose?

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.

Hutzler's Tinsel and Beau asleep with their eye covers on between shows (courtesy of Shirley Brewer).

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

copyright ownership work for hire

Title page of the Copyright Catalog for 1939 [click to enlarge]

copyright entry work for hire

Page of 1939 Copyright Catalog with Rudolph's entry [click to enlarge]

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.

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

Detail showing copyright ownership by Robert May in 1947 [click to enlarge]

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

Record of renewal in 1967. [This is the best image I could capture.]

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. 

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About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps small business people, writers, artists, and creative professionals make a living from their creative work by teaching them how to protect and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law as you build your business, write your stories, and create your art.

  • Karen Langtree says:

    Hi Kathryn. I’m a small indie author trying to find out who to write to about copyright of Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer images and references. I’m writing a Christmas book, not about Rudolph but including some images of a red nosed reindeer and a reference to him. Can you help me? It’s really difficult to find this information on the internet. I know it is the Rudolph company but I can’t find an address or email address.

    • Karen,
      The portfolio of rights owned by The Rudolph Company is currently managed by Character Arts (https://www.characterarts.com/). You can find contact information for licensing the work at the bottom of their web page. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

  • Gretchen Van Lente says:

    I have a robot named Rudy-bot. He he has a different color nose. He lights up the sky and all, but he is a replacement and goes through the entire outcast thing for not being flesh and blood. How does it look for copyright infringement?

  • Margaret Fraser Stewart says:

    Can I ask what the law says about creating crafts that are Rudolph such as cards, gift boxes putting it on a tee shirt etc. etc. And can I share my creations with others e.g. on a Facebook group.

    • Margaret,
      Copying the image of Rudolph for use on merchandise is likely to be a copyright infringement and probably an infringement of trademark, too. So probably not a good idea.

      • Cory says:

        She meant like how to license the actual character, specifically the one made by Robert L May himself

  • Jan Griffin says:

    I am a hobby crafter who sells at only two Christmas fairs, one to raise funds for our cricket club and the other to raise funds for our community hall.

    The spirit of Rudolf is to benefit the community, however I have been told that so many events have been sued for copyright/trademark infringement that we are not allowed anything that could be deemed to characterise Rudolf!

    I would like to know how to get licensed to produce limited Rudolf merchandise (cards, chocolate holders, mittens (clothing) etc.

  • Catherine Lee-Bess says:

    I wrote a song/story about Rudolph in 1992. My children love it however knowing I have no rights to have it published and do not have the information to speak to family members that hold these rights, for years I’ve been at a stand still. My song will bring Rudolph alive once again. The song is bases for a movie. Colorado about three years ago announced it would not play Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer on T.V. anymore during the holidays due to the violence the snow monster represents. Generation after generation my family has sat down and watched Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer movie/cartoon. Some day this movie may become obsolete. Is there anyway at all I can be in contact with the owners that have the rights to Rudolph? I would love to be part of a project that would instill a fresh new generation to this beloved Christmas fairy tale.

  • Noah says:

    I wrote a children’s book about a friend of the reindeer with a bright nose (who appears briefly in the story but never by name). Is that infringement?

  • Vince Romano says:

    I’ve written a song about Santa and his reindeer with a lyric, “that’s eight plus Rudolph….” There’s no other mention of Rudolph, no mention of a red nose and not specifically about Rudolph. Rudolph seems to be trademarked but I don’t see my use in the information I’ve found. Am I in any kind of violation?

    • Vince,
      I haven’t done a deep dive into the trademark for Rudolph, but the use you’re describing does not sound like a trademark use. You’re not using the mark as the name of your song or to advertise or market it. If you are not suggesting that your song is endorsed by or affiliated with The Rudolf Company, I think the risk of infringement is low.

      • Thanks for the response. Listen for my new release this Christmas!

      • Cory says:

        And Karen, is it okay if I use it for a movie that I’m working on called Rudolph And The Young Prince Of The Forest, where Bambi & Rudolph become friends with each other and 2 friends named Feline & Bonnie.

  • Niall says:

    Can I write a story about how Rudolph got his red nose, would that infringe the copyright?

  • Ian McArthur says:

    Would it be acceptable to write a story entitled Rudolph the Pink Nosed Reindeer?

    • If it were a satire and not a knock-off, it might fly.

      • Cory says:

        Or maybe a movie called Nova who is a pink nosed descendant of Rudolph himself.

  • This family inheritance story is repeated in the music business. The estate of the author of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” still has rights. They are, I believe, managed by one of the many companies doing such rights management. – L Paul Turner, http://www.TheSpaceTrade[dot]com

  • Ken Casey says:

    Fascinating story and copyright information. Thanks.

  • Renato Estupinan says:

    I work as a Marketing Director in a Shopping Mall, can I tell the story of Rudolph to kids in the Mall as a christmas activity using Augmented Reality? Do I need permission to do that?

    • This is an interesting question, Renato. Let’s run a fair use analysis on it and see how it comes out. I’m going to make a few assumptions about your project idea because your question doesn’t include many details.

      I envision that your mall is planning to build a miniature North Pole setting with the elves’ workshop, the reindeers’ dens, and Santa’s living room similar to scenes in the movie version of the story. Then, like the game Pokemon Go, there will be an app that parents can download onto their phones. When the kids go to the North Pole, they point the phone at various places in the physical setting, the characters pop up and part of the story is told through the app.

      Let’s breakdown the four fair use factors as they apply to this scenario:

      First, the purpose of your use of the story is to entertain children, to draw them and their parents to the mall where presumably they will spend money with the retailers there. Your intended use is clearly commercial. Using augmented reality is not likely to be considered transformative of the original work. AR is just another form of media and changing media does not protect against a claim of infringement.This factor weighs against fair use.

      Second, the nature of the underlying work you are using is highly creative. This factor weighs against fair use.

      Third, in order to tell the story, you are probably going to have to use most of it. This weighs against fair use.

      Fourth, if your augmented reality version tells most or all of Rudolph’s story, your project is likely to have a negative impact on the marketability of the DVD, which as you can see in the right side bar, is still being sold. This factor weighs against fair use.

      In short, I think your intended use of the story in the mall as an AR experience would be an infringement of the original work. You should consider licensing the rights or hiring someone to write a new story and build the AR experience around that.

      Great question. Let me know if you disagree with my analysis and I invite other readers to chime in, too.

  • Donald Nelson says:

    I have been portraying Santa Claus every Christmas at stores and personal home visits for many years. I am asked questions, just as all Santa’s are asked, which I have never been stumped. Anyway, I am also a writer and have written a story about another reindeer with a shiny red nose. Is this legal to publish?

    • Donald,
      Your question can’t be answered in a blog post comment, unfortunately. It requires a clearance analysis. Rudolph isn’t only protected by copyright, he may also be protected by trademark. Trademark raises the issue of whether there might be consumer confusion between your shiny-nosed reindeer and Rudolph. So, I really can’t give you an answer on this one without digging into some research and comparing your work to the original.

      • Nago says:

        Kathryn, Would’t you want to know if it is legal or not as you are a professional legal advisor? I wish you dig into the details about it further more instead dismiss it.

        • Nago, I hope I don’t dismiss any question submitted on this blog or sent to me by email. Full consideration of this particular issue would not lead to an answer that “It is legal” or “It is not legal.” When analyzing fair use or possible infringement, it’s about risk assessment. There’s not enough information in the original question to analyze whether there might be an infringement or if the use is fair.

  • Clarence says:

    I would like to know if I can use the term ” Red Nose Reindeers” Legally? I have a story that doesn’t directly refer to Rudolph but a group of Red Nose Reindeers.

  • Mike Robison says:

    Thank you for your blog. I have created a new reindeer and he is one of Rudolph’s friends and helps Santa navigate through storms. Can I use the name Rudolph as long as the story is not about him?

    • Do you want to just say something like, “I’m Norman, one of Santa’s reindeer and Rudolph is my friend” then go on with a story that has nothing to do with Rudolph? I think that would be OK. If it’s less like fan fiction and more like a passing reference to a famous reindeer, it might work.

  • ACK says:

    This is an excellent copyright-themed Christmas story that I have not read about in other articles or blog.

    “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.”

    This might be the only time I can recall a corporation “transferring” its copyright to its work-for-hire employee author! This is only supposed to happen in fairy tales, not in real life.

    A Thought: After Sewall Avery retired/was replaced by another Montgomery Ward president, do you suppose the corporate suits ever thought about exercising the firm’s copyright termination rights (56-years) to recapture its copyright back from Robert May? This would have certainly been cruel and Grinch-like + in-line with a corporation’s real life economic interests.

  • Matt Emond says:

    This story really interests me. I read another story from the lawyer working with the Rudolph company who successfully sued a company making a Rudolph-like toy who named their product “Rood”. What I’m wondering is if they had simply not put a name to their product, would it have still been a copyright infringement? In other words can someone create a product with a reindeer with a glowing red nose, forgo putting a name to the character, and be ok?

  • Ah, yes, Rudolph and Robert L. May.

    Back in the eighties, when I wrote SANTA STEPS OUT: A FAIRY TALE FOR GROWN-UPS, I was going to use Rudolph as the lead reindeer. In my research, I discovered that the copyright you mention would prevent that. So I invented Lucifer (“light-bearer”) and gave him a glowing nose but not a red one. In my author’s afterword, I explain why I did that. So wonderful that Montgomery Ward gave the rights to Mr. May!

  • alisonholt@alisonholtbooks.com says:

    I think I like the story about you being Tinsel and Beau better than the rest of the blog post! Puts you in a whole new category in my book 🙂


    • And what category would that be?

      Don’t you put me in your next book! At least not as Tinsel and Beau.

      • alisonholt@alisonholtbooks.com says:

        Fun-loving, animated, playful! And don’t worry, my characters are all fictional!

  • Hi Kathryn, This is a great article. I would like to share it on my facebook page for all of my author friends to read. It really brings home the importance of copyright protection and better planning of our work.

    • Michael,

      I’m glad you like it. Please share. Protecting your creations improves your ability to earn from them. Of that, I have no doubt.


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