In a case at London’s high court, Richard Adams’ estate won a longstanding claim against Martin Rosen, director of the 1978 animation.
The estate of Watership Down author Richard Adams has won back all of the rights to the late author’s classic novel about anthropomorphised rabbits, in a high court ruling against the director of the famed animated adaptation.
The high court in London ruled on 27 May that Martin Rosen, the US director of the 1978 adaptation of Adams’s novel, had wrongly claimed that he owned all rights to the book, in which a group of rabbits fight to survive the destruction of their warren.
The court heard that Rosen, who owned the motion picture rights to Watership Down under his original 1976 contract, had entered into contracts worth more than $500,000 (£400,975) while claiming that he held all rights to the novel. Rosen also made $85,000 from an unauthorised licence for an audiobook adaptation, and also failed to pay the estate fees and merchandising royalties from the 2018 BBC/Netflix television adaptation, on which he served as an executive producer.
In his ruling, Judge Hacon ordered Rosen and his companies to pay an initial $100,000 in damages for copyright infringement, agreeing unauthorised license deals and denying royalty payments. Rosen and his companies were also directed to provide a record of all license agreements involving Watership Down, and pay court costs and the estate’s legal fees totalling £28,000. Rosen is set to pay additional damages, to be determined at a later hearing.
The court also terminated the original contract in which motion picture rights for Watership Down were granted to Rosen.
Juliet Johnson, Adams’s daughter and the managing director of the estate, said her family was “extremely pleased” by the ruling.
“As custodians of this most beloved novel, our family has an obligation to protect the publishing and other rights for Watership Down and to preserve the essence of our father’s creation,” Johnson said. “After many years trying to resolve matters directly with Martin Rosen, we are extremely pleased with the high court’s ruling. We can now look forward to the future and develop new projects that honour the powerful and pertinent messages of Watership Down about the environment, leadership and friendship.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Johnson said she was “utterly exhausted … it has taken a long time to pull it all together and say, dad didn’t get his due.”
Adams, who died in 2016 at the age of 96, first came up with the story of a group of rabbits escaping from their doomed warren as a way to entertain his daughters in the car. After an initial print run of 2,500 copies in 1972, Watership Down became a huge bestseller, selling tens of millions of copies around the world and winning both the Carnegie medal and the Guardian children’s prize.
Many interpretations have been laid on Watership Down, from allegory to a take on religion, but Adams and his daughters always rejected them. “It was meant to be just a story, and it remains that. A story, a jolly good story I must admit, but it remains a story,” Adams told the Guardian in 2015. “It’s not meant to be a parable. That’s important, I think. Its power and strength come from being a story told in the car.”