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After four years, the long-awaited trial of Toronto's Sullivan Entertainment versus the heirs of Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery is set to begin.

On Monday, lawyers for the two sides will make their opening statements in a $55-million defamation suit that Kevin Sullivan and Trudy Grant, the married co-owners of Sullivan, filed against Montgomery's 88-year-old daughter-in-law, Ruth Macdonald, and some of her clan.

Given the history here, sources close to the parties bet the five-week-long event in a downtown Toronto courtroom could be nail-bitingly good drama -- better than most of the schlock on TV.

The battle began in June, 1999, after the Sullivans, makers of fuzzy, feel-good TV shows such as Anne of Green Gables, and spinoffs such as Road to Avonlea, announced plans to take their company public. In its preliminary prospectus, Sullivan Entertainment said family favourites such as Road to Avonlea attracted strong viewer ratings and had been sold to networks in the United States and overseas.

It estimated earnings of $6.4-million for that fiscal year on revenue of $35.7-million.

Those numbers stuck in the craw of Macdonald and Lucy Maud's granddaughter Kate Macdonald Butler, who had been informed in 1997 by Sullivan Entertainment that none of the programs had reported a net profit.

Soon after, the Montgomery heirs, with help from spin doctors at public-relations firm Media Profile, held a press conference. There, Kate Macdonald Butler outlined the family's position and its version of the long-standing dispute with Sullivan over royalty payments. "We simply want the Sullivan Entertainment Group to respect the family's legitimate interest in productions of my grandmother's works," Kate Macdonald Butler said. Looking grim at the 1999 press conference, she added: "Litigation is emotionally draining, and my mother is 84 -- but it may come to that."

Sullivan argues that Montgomery's works are in the public domain because the author died in 1942. However, the company signed a contract in 1984 to share "net profits in perpetuity." Sullivan disputes the family's understanding of "net profits."

Because of the negative fallout from that media event, Sullivan said it had to cancel an initial public offering and a $10-million purchase of a film library. The company said its reputation was sullied because of the family's statements.

Court documents filed by Sullivan said the Montgomery family's remarks would lead the public to think the company was "untrustworthy, dishonest, and deceitful. As a direct result of the above defamatory publications, subscriptions for Sullivan's IPO fell immediately by approximately $10-million (Canadian)," court documents said.

Three of Montgomery's descendants and their lawyer were sued for slander. In a statement of defence, lawyers for the author's heirs said they "have been denied their share of the profits" from the Anne spinoff television series and Anne miniseries produced by Sullivan, that Sullivan denied them financial information on the shows and that Sullivan is planning to make further Anne productions without permission.

In 1984, Sullivan paid the family $425,000 for rights, plus "10 per cent of 100 per cent of net profits in perpetuity."

Although the first Anne miniseries was a huge hit in more than 200 countries, Sullivan later claimed it yielded no profits. In October, 2000, Sullivan Entertainment added Media Profile, headed by Liberal insider Patrick Gossage, to the defamation suit.

Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. It's estimated that sales of the author's books stand at more than 50-million copies internationally.

Forty years after the author's death, the family learned that it had reversionary rights to royalties from the books under Canadian copyright law and began exercising them.

The Sullivan case is not the only battle in which the Montgomery estate is involved. The heirs also have been pressing for passage of Bill C-36 in the House of Commons. If enacted by the end of this year, the legislation would extend their control over their famous ancestor's unpublished writings well into the current century, instead of seeing them enter the public domain in 2004.

The controversial bill recently received third and final reading but has yet to be fully debated and voted into law.