“That’s what makes it so grand. You should be lucky to have a nose like that!”
— Clarice, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
“Everybody’s been to some degree found wanting, not quite fitting in.”
— Paul Soles, Voice of Hermey the Elf
In the early 1980s, Hutler’s Department Store in Baltimore, Maryland, entertained children at Christmastime with the antics of two puppet reindeer — Tinsel and Beau. An employee would operate the puppets and provide the voices, answering questions from children and telling stories. Among the many employees who filled that role was Kathryn Miller Goldman, who was in college at the time, but now is an intellectual property lawyer in Baltimore.
Ms. Goldman, of the law firm of Goldman and Minton, tells the story on her Creative Law Center website. In her account of her time acting the roles, she notes that she wondered why the store didn’t just use a standard story, such as that of the reindeer in “The Night Before Christmas,” or the story of Rudolph — an answer she then provides using her skills as an intellectual property law specialist. The story is one of copyright enforcement, and of one of the most generous acts of copyright release in American history.
Rudolph was the brainchild of a Jewish writer by the name of Robert Lewis May. May was a Dartmouth graduate with a psychology degree who was working as an advertising copyrighter with Montgomery Ward after the Great Depression had cost him an earlier job. May’s boss at the department store came to him and asked if he could write a children’s story that Montgomery Ward could give away at Christmas. The store had been giving out coloring books, but an original story would save money in tight times.
May wasn’t in a particularly cheery mood. His wife had recently been diagnosed with cancer and the family was struggling to juggle her care. May bounced ideas off of his young daughter, and even went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the reindeer there to gain inspiration. The story was partially finished when Evelyn May died in late July 1939. Knowing what a tough time it was for the family, Montgomery Ward executives told May that he didn’t need to finish the story, but he decided to press on, finishing the poem in late August. He read it to his daughter and Evelyn’s parents and later said, “In their eyes, I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.”
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies that Christmas, and the tale was a huge hit. But America had other problems. Wartime restrictions on a variety of things, including paper, pushed the story to the background, and May returned to advertising his work. When the war ended, Montgomery Ward printed another 3.6 million copies in 1946. Rudolph was a hit.
That same year, May got his first request to record the poem. The problem was that he couldn’t give permission. Rudolph was his creation, but he didn’t own the character — the department store did, since he had created it in the course of his employment. Knowing the difficulty that May and his family had been through, and acting in a spirit of incredible generosity, the store signed the copyright over to May without any restrictions.
A record was produced with an actor reciting the poem, but no one could be found to print a book version since there were already six million copies of the poem in print. Finally, a small publishing company took on the task just in time for the 1947 Christmas season. But it was May’s brother-in-law who gave Rudolph his big break. May had remarried by then and his new wife’s brother was songwriter Johnny Marks, who had already had a few big hits. Marks set the poem to the tune we now all know, persuaded Gene Autry to sing it, and Rudolph was suddenly big, big business.
May, now with the copyright in hand, created a corporation (The Rudolph Company) to control marketing and merchandising and sold the television rights to Rankin-Bass, who created the legendary stop-motion animated version in 1964.
The protection that May set up for his creation is what prevented Hutler’s Department Store from using the Rudolph character in the 1980s, and still protects the rights to the story today. In fact, May’s children and Marks’ children — cousins — agreed long ago to split the royalties between them.
It’s been nearly 60 years since the first Rudolph TV special and the last of the people who provided the major voices for it, Canadian actor Paul Soles, passed away in May of this year. Johnny Marks wrote the rest of the music for the Rudolph TV specials, and had many, many other Christmas hits, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.
The rest of Ms. Goldman’s excellent legal analysis can be found on her blog at creativelawcenter.com.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.