Pippi Longstocking: can song lyrics infringe the copyright to a fictional character?
Can song lyrics infringe the copyright to a fictional character? The Regional Court of Hamburg answered this question in the affirmative. This case before the Regional Court of Hamburg concerned the German version of the theme song to the children`s movies “Pippi Longstocking” called “Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf” and was brought by the heirs of Astrid Lindgren against the song writer (“defendant”) and publisher (“defendant publisher”).
The central question of the case was whether the song text (not the song as a whole) constituted free use or an adaptation of the fictional character “Pippi Longstocking”; the latter requiring consent of Astrid Lindgren or her legal successors. The Regional Court of Hamburg found the use to be an adaption. Since there was no consent, the song text was found to be infringing the copyright to the fictional character “Pippi Longstocking”.
This case dates back to 1969 when the defendant was approached to write the lyrics to the theme song for the German-Swedish movies “Pippi Longstocking”, namely to the movie “Pippi Longstocking on the run”. The ensuing song text written by the defendant showed similarities to the Swedish theme song written by Astrid Lindgren herself, but wasn’t a direct translation. In a letter dated September 1969 the defendant sent the lyrics to Astrid Lindgren asking for her consent. Astrid Lindgren replied stating that no such consent could be given at that time.
A month later, an initial version of the German song called “Hei, Pippi Langstrumpf” was registered with GEMA, the German society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights. The defendant and Astrid Lindgren were named as joint authors of the lyrics. In 1970 the defendant signed a publishing agreement with the defendant publisher. The publishing agreement specified that the defendant was to be named as sole author of the lyrics.
As German readers may be aware, the song “Hei/y, Pippi Langstrumpf” then went on to be used as part of the theme song in the various “Pippi Longstocking” films.
Fast forward to 1987, the defendants (song writer and publisher) registered the same work with GEMA under a slightly amended name “Hey, Pippi Langstumpf”. The defendant was indicated as the sole author and the defendant publisher as the original publisher.
Almost 20 years later (in 2006), the plaintiff became aware of the fact that the registration of 1987 named the defendant as sole author of the song “Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf”. After apparently very lengthy correspondence, the case was then brought before the Regional Court of Hamburg in December 2017.
In its decision of December 2020, the Regional Court of Hamburg found that the song text to “Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf” was not only a translation of the Swedish song, but constituted an adaption. Since there was no consent with regard to the adaption, the court granted the action for information, injunctive relief and damages.
To arrive at this conclusion, the court answered the following questions in the affirmative:
- Is the reference to the fictional character connected to the adoption of essential external and characteristic features of said character?
- If yes, does this lead to the reader/listener/viewer thinking that the already known fictional character is actually to be depicted or described by the song text?
The Regional Court of Hamburg opined that the song text showed a direct link to Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking”.
Firstly, the song title included the name “Pippi Langstrumpf”. Moreover, the song text referenced various characteristic features, such as Pippi Longstocking’s living conditions and her financial circumstances, which considering that she has a house, a monkey and a horse (as explicitly mentioned in the song) are quite comfortable.
Aside from that, Pippi Longstocking’s “fearlessness and irreverence coupled with imagination and wordplay, which is also reflected in her unconventional but at the same time cheerful way of life and her idiosyncratic way of dealing with supposedly universally valid rules, e.g. mathematics” were also depicted in the song text.
What to take away from this?
At this stage, we do not know if the decision has been appealed.
That said, the decision shows that copyright can extend past the original type of work, in this case from a book solely to the fictional character depicted therein.
A fictional character may enjoy copyright protection on its own and may be infringed if essential external and characteristic features of that character are adopted, resulting in the public thinking that the work in fact depicts/describes that fictional character.
Case details at a glance
Decision level: Regional Court of Hamburg
Date: 19 December 2020
Docket: 308 O 431/17