In 1969, the defendant lyricist of the song "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf" was asked to write the lyrics of the theme song for the German-Swedish television series "Pippi Longstocking” (“Pippi Langstrumpf” in German). According to the publishing contract, the defendant was to be named as the sole author of the lyrics. However, the song written by the defendant showed parallels to the Swedish theme song written by Astrid Lindgren herself. Before signing the publishing contract, the defendant lyricist therefore approached Astrid Lindgren in order to obtain her approval regarding the registration of the German song with the defendant named as the author. Lindgren expressly refused her consent.
In October 1969, a first version of the German song was registered with GEMA under the name "Hei, Pippi Langstrumpf'. Among others, the defendant and Astrid Lindgren were named as joint authors of the lyrics. Several years later, in November 1987, the defendant lyricist and the defendant publisher registered the same work with the GEMA under the amended name "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf: Titellied" (= “Hey, Pippi Longstocking: Title Song”). The defendant lyricist was indicated as the sole author and the defendant music publisher as the original publisher. In subsequent years, the lyrics were used in, among other things, the German versions of various "Pippi Longstocking" films as part of the theme song.
In 2006, the plaintiff became aware of the fact that the registration named the defendant lyricist as the sole author of the song "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf." Subsequently, there was correspondence between the parties, which finally resulted in a lawsuit filed on December 11, 2017. According to the plaintiff, the song text "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf" would infringe rights to the literary character "Pippi Longstocking" – which is protected by copyright as a linguistic work – as well as the copyrights to the Swedish song text. The plaintiff is of the opinion that the challenged song text is a translation based on the Swedish lyrics.
In its decision, the court essentially deals with the question of whether the work "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf", and the reference to the character of "Pippi Longstocking", would constitute a dependent adaptation within the meaning of Section 23 of the German Copyright Act (UrhG) or a free use within the meaning of Section 24 UrhG. The former would have required the consent of Astrid Lindgren (respectively her legal successors).
The court states that the lyrics of the song "Hey, Pippi Langstrumpf" would at least constitute a dependent adaptation within the meaning of Section 23 UrhG "if the reference to the character is also connected with the adoption of essential external and character-related personal features" and “if this leads to the viewer thinking that the previously known literary character is actually to be depicted or described by the lyrics”.
In the opinion of the court, the song text in dispute does show a direct link to the character of "Pippi Longstocking" created by Astrid Lindgren. This is expressed by the fact that not only the name "Pippi Longstocking" (= Pippi Langstrumpf) is expressly taken over in the text and its title, but also various characteristic features of the literary figure can be found in the text. The court cites as examples Pippi Longstocking's unusual living conditions and her above-average financial circumstances, which are expressed in the song by "I've got a house, a motley house, a monkey and a horse, they look out of the window there" (= „Ich hab’ ein Haus, ein kunterbuntes Haus, ein Äffchen und ein Pferd, die schauen dort zum Fenster raus“). In addition, the "imagination and wordplay" of Pippi Longstocking, coupled with "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", are also expressed in the song. The court refers here to the passage of the song "Two times three makes four, widewidewitt and three makes nine, I make the world as I like [...]" (= „Zwei mal drei macht vier, widewidewitt und drei macht neune, ich mach' mir die Welt, widewide wie sie mir gefällt […]").
Due to the success of the "Pippi Longstocking" stories, the aforementioned character traits of the literary figure are also widely known to the public, according to the court. The court states further that it was therefore indisputable that a dependent adaptation within the meaning of Section 23 UrhG had to be assumed. This, on the other hand, would have required the consent of Astrid Lindgren or her legal successors. Since there was no such consent, the action for information, injunctive relief and damages was to be granted.
Comment and next steps
The decision is not yet legally binding. The first-instance ruling of the Regional Court makes it clear though, that in the case of literary works, it is not only the specific text that is protected by copyrights, but also components with an individual personality, i.e. individual literary characters. The latter is always the case if these are distinguished by an unmistakable combination of external features, character traits, abilities and typical behavior and are thus formed into particularly distinct personalities.
However, in order for a literary character to enjoy such a protection a strict benchmark applies. In the opinion of the Regional Court Hamburg, Astrid Lindgren fulfilled this standard with her imaginative tales about Pippi Longstocking. It is likely, however, that the defendants will appeal this decision.