9 Copyrights That Were Donated to Charity

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A lucrative patent or a popular copyright can provide a creator's heirs with solid streams of revenue for decades. Some great artists and inventors decided that they'd rather give the rights to their best creations to charity, though. Here are a few well-known bits of intellectual property that have found their way into charities' portfolios.

1. Peter Pan

Some generous souls even give away their biggest cash cows while they're still alive. In 1929 author J.M. Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street children's hospital in London. While the play had been a success, newspapers figured that the gift was worth a few thousand pounds a year. Once film took off, though, the rights became much more valuable; over 10 feature films were made from the book before the copyright expired in 2007.

The copyright's expiration in 2007 wasn't totally bad news for the hospital, though; Former prime Minister Jim Callagahn worked out a special bill that allowed the hospital to continue collecting royalties from stage performances of Peter Pan within the U.K.

2. "God Bless America"

In 1918 Irving Berlin was serving the military by writing a musical for his fellow soldiers to perform. The musical Yip Yip Yaphank eventually made it to Broadway, but Berlin ended up cutting one song from the piece and forgetting all about it—a little ditty called "God Bless America." Berlin decided "God Bless America" wasn't rousing enough to be the show's finale, so he scrapped the tune. It went unperformed for 20 years until singer Kate Smith's manager asked Berlin if the composer had a patriotic song that Smith could belt out. Berlin dusted off his forgotten gem, and it quickly became a sort of second national anthem during World War II.

Good news for Berlin and Smith, but even better news for the Scouts. Berlin gave all of the royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, and over the years the groups have made millions from the song.

3. The Drunk-O-Meter

Sure, as a product name, "Drunk-O-Meter" doesn't have quite the same understated seriousness of "breathalyzer," but the Drunk-O-Meter did the same job. In 1931 Indiana University professor Rolla N. Harger created the Drunk-O-Meter as a device to test the sobriety of drivers. Suspected tipplers breathed into a special balloon, and Harger's device got a reading on how much they'd had to drink. By 1936 Harger had patented his creation, and he eventually signed the invention over to Indiana University. The school's website describes the gift as a "surprise moneymaker."

4. The Clintons' Literary Output

Bill and Hillary Clinton have been fairly prolific as authors, and they've been pretty generous with the royalties. In 1998 Hillary wrote a children's book called Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets that collected fan mail sent to the Clintons' dog and cat. She gave the copyright to the National Park Service, which used the royalties to maintain various parks and the White House.

As of their 1998 tax return, the Clintons had given nearly $920,000 in various book royalties to children's charities, including children's hospitals. In some years Hillary gave every penny of the royalties from her book It Takes a Village to various charities.

5. A Ventriloquist's Heart

Audiences probably remember ventriloquist and voice actor Paul Winchell for his performances as Tigger in Disney's Winnie the Pooh movies. Winchell wasn't just a funny voice, though; he was also an amateur inventor who developed and patented an early version of the artificial heart. Researchers at the University of Utah were working on an artificial heart of their own at the same time, and when they went to patent their design, they found that Winchell had actually scooped them on several features.

Instead of fighting Winchell's patent, the scientists asked him to donate the patent to the university, which he did. In exchange for his cooperation, the school let Winchell conduct research in its labs and assist with transplants.

6. The Terrible Towel

In 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers announcer Myron Cope wanted to come up with a gimmick for fans to bring to games to make home crowds more intimidating. He came up with a beautifully simplistic idea: getting the sea of Steelers fans to all wave gold towels. He named his innovation the Terrible Towel because "it implied wondrous, strange things." Cope eventually trademarked his Terrible Towel idea, and it became quite a moneymaker.

In 1996 Cope assigned the trademark to the Allegheny Valley School for the disabled. Cope's son, Daniel, was born with brain damage and lived at the school. The school must have been delighted to get such a hot trademark in the Pittsburgh area; through the beginning of the 2009 NFL season the school had raked in over $3 million in royalties from Terrible Towel sales.

7. Dorothy Parker's Body of Work

When writer Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she left her entire literary estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. While Parker had never met King, she intensely admired him, and she further stipulated that when King died her estate should become property of the NAACP.

There was a problem, though. Parker appointed her playwright friend Lillian Hellman to be her executor, and Hellman didn't share Parker's admiration of King and the NAACP. Hellman went out of her way to nix any efforts to reprint Parker's work and allegedly did everything she could to hinder Parker's biographers. Some critics have speculated that Hellman felt jilted that Parker, like Hellman's longtime lover Dashiell Hammett, didn't leave her literary estate to Hellman. In any event, a 1972 court ruling gave total control to the NAACP, but Hellman was still ticked off. She told the New York Times Book Review that Parker's gift indicated "she must have been drunk when she did it."

8. Man and Nature

In 1864 environmentalist and diplomat George Perkins Marsh donated the copyright from his landmark ecology text Man and Nature to the United States Sanitary Commission. Marsh's nephew and brother quickly realized that the environmentalist would live to regret this decision, so they arranged to buy the copyright back for $500 and return it to Marsh.

9. The Telegraph

In 1838 Samuel Morse wrote a letter to the Republic of Texas offering to give the fledgling republic the rights to his telegraph invention. Texas never took Morse up on his offer, and the inventor apparently never even got a response. Eventually, Morse wrote a second letter to Sam Houston letting him know that the deal was off the table; he then assigned the rights over the United States.

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May 25, 2010 - 10:56am
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