Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Tale of Copyright Transfer
Yesterday, my six-year old daughter got a copy of the book Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. The book jacket describes the book as “The Original Story of Rudolph,” and there is no doubt that the book version differs from the well-known song or the Burl Ives Christmas special. That was interesting, but I found the back flap of the book jacket of even greater interest. We are told that Rudolph was written by Robert May in 1939 while he was working for Montgomery Ward, the old department store chain. Ward used Rudolph as a holiday giveaway.
This all makes Rudolph, as the copyright statute puts it, a “work made for hire” and copyright in Rudolph would have vested in Montgomery Ward. But, according to the book jacket:
Over the next few years, the company distributed millions of copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Mr. May persuaded the company to turn the story’s copyright over to him in 1947, and under his ownership, Rudolph’s popularity soared. Commercial printings and cartoons quickly followed, and then, of course, came the song which secured Rudolph’s place in Christmas history, and in our hearts, forever.
All of this raises a number of interesting questions. What other parts of the standard holiday iconography have corporate origins? Did the copyright transfer really make Rudolph more valuable? Was Rudolph an undervalued corporate asset? One website suggests that Ward must have understood the value that Rudolph represented, but that Ward transferred Rudolph to May to help him with a family illness. Do we have other examples of corporate copyright giveaways?