Many of us enjoyed the film, Miss Potter, and the rise of Beatrix Potter to fame and glory. We watched Warne Publishers take her from virtual unknown to super star of the literary world. Today brings a different slant to the Warne victory.
The tale of consumer culture is an interesting and sad one, indeed. This is true especially in the children’s market, where the almost unimaginable monetary value of derivative merchandise, sequels, and spinoffs, and the control and manipulation of original creations through copyright and trademark, can degrade the very characteristics that distinguished the work in the first place.
Beatrix Potter’s The
Potter first told the story of Peter Rabbit in 1893 in a picture-letter sent to the bedridden son of her former governess. Its simple line drawings introduce the principals — Peter and his siblings; his mother; and his nemesis, Mr. McGregor — while its tiny tale of temptation and trial in an English garden unfolds in simple perfection. She quickly secured a contract with publisher Frederick Warne, agreeing to redo the illustrations in color.
The book proved an immediate success on publication in October 1902, rapidly selling out a first printing of eight thousand copies.To her dismay, the firm failed to register copyright in the United States, leading to piracies and loss of revenue. Although she helped save the company in 1917, after embezzlement by another Warne brother nearly bankrupted it, she scolded them on quality, condemning a copy of Peter Rabbit’s Almanac for 1929 as “wretched.”
After Potter died in 1943 at the age of seventy-seven, Warne cast itself as the guardian of her legacy. But eventually the guardian began behaving badly, seeking to wring profits from its most famous long-eared property. In 1983, Warne was acquired by Penguin, itself owned by the international conglomerate Pearson, the largest book publisher in the world.
Warne has applied for trademarks here and in the EU for every imaginable Peter Rabbit–related item that might feasibly be sold, from “books and texts in all media” to “toilet seat covers” and “meat extracts.”
Warne’s zealous pursuit of its rights has not deterred it from crass acts of its own. In 1987, the same year it published its painstakingly remade edition, the firm allowed Ladybird Books, a purveyor of cheap paperbacks owned by the parent company, Pearson, to market The Tale of Peter Rabbit with bowdlerized text, eliminating Potter’s dry wit, and replacing her illustrations with photos of stuffed animals.
Warne was excoriated in The Times of London, which condemned the new edition as “Hamlet without the ghost, Othello without the handkerchief.” Undaunted, a few years later Warne took out an advertisement in The Bookseller — “Peter Rabbit™ Packs a Powerful Punch” — threatening those who wandered into its garden with “expensive legal action." Have a look below: