Oh, my, but it's getting deep in the Hundred Acre Wood.

For years, Disney(NYSE: DIS) has been involved in a bitter battle with the Stephen Slesinger family over who owns various rights to the loveable Winnie the Pooh character. The family purchased North American merchandising rights from author A.A. Milne in the 1930s and claims Disney has shortchanged it for up to $1 billion in royalty payments since.

Disney pooh-poohs that notion, but it's stepping gingerly because the stakes are frighteningly high: Pooh accounts for about a quarter of the company's annual revenue, according to the Slesinger family. We're not talking small chips, here, especially if the family attempts to withhold Disney's right to Pooh.

The big news today is that Disney has apparently gone behind the family's back and snatched Pooh from them. The company says the Milne heirs -- and those of illustrator E.H. Shepard -- were able to reclaim the rights to the chubby little cubby because of a 1998 copyright law change, and will grant them exclusively to Disney beginning November of 2004.

The Slesinger family, on the other hand, says the whole mess just doesn't smell right. "The Slesingers bought the rights outright from the Milnes," said a family attorney, "and they can't just divest the Slesingers of those rights."

Besides the fact that this will be tied up in court for a long time, another bit of news will be hard for investors to digest: Even if Disney were to be granted full Pooh rights, it may still be on the hook for past royalty payments. Stay tuned.