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‘Martha Speaks’ author sues WGBH for cut of donations

“Martha Speaks” author Susan Meddaugh (left) with WGBH staff in 2008. Meddaugh wrote the first book, which follows the adventures of a lovable dog, in 1991.

Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/File 2008

“Martha Speaks” author Susan Meddaugh (left) with WGBH staff in 2008. Meddaugh wrote the first book, which follows the adventures of a lovable dog, in 1991.

The popular children’s public television series “Martha Speaks” follows the adventures of a lovable talking dog who learns new words. In a contentious new episode taking place off screen, the latest addition to Martha’s vocabulary is “lawsuit.”

Author and illustrator Susan Meddaugh, whose books inspired the TV show, is suing WGBH for a cut of the more than $20 million in donations the nonprofit PBS affiliate receives from its audience each year. Because WGBH uses “Martha Speaks” to solicit contributions, the station owes Meddaugh some of that money, the writer’s legal team argued in a complaint filed in Middlesex Superior Court.

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Meddaugh also claims she was cheated out of royalties when the public broadcaster employed the kind of deceptive accounting practices usually associated with infamous Hollywood bookkeeping. She further alleges WGBH exploited her intellectual property to make money on ventures she never agreed to, and has not shared the proceeds.

The complaint does not specify the amount of money Meddaugh is seeking. WGBH has fought the lawsuit since it was filed in January, and a judge will hear the station’s motion to dismiss the case on June 11.

A WGBH spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit. Richard M. Gelb, an attorney for Meddaugh, also declined to comment.

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Though it is not in the class of iconic children’s programs like “Sesame Street,” “Martha Speaks” has become a fixture in the public broadcasting lineup and a trusted learning tool for families with young children.

More than 4 million households nationwide watch “Martha Speaks” every week, PBS has reported. Eighty episodes have aired on WGBH and more than 300 other PBS affiliates since “Martha Speaks” debuted in 2008. A fifth season premieres this month.

The animated show airs twice each weekday on WGBH and once on Saturday mornings. It can be viewed anytime through the on-demand services included in many cable subscriptions.

Meddaugh, 66, wrote the first “Martha Speaks” book in 1991 and published six more volumes between 1992 and 2004 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

According to a video interview with Meddaugh that appears on the PBS website, Martha’s character is modeled after a family pet by the same name.

One day when Meddaugh’s son, Nicholas, was 7 years old, he wondered what would happen if Martha were to eat alphabet soup. Would she talk? In Meddaugh’s imagination, the answer was yes and a hit book series was born.

Meddaugh signed a contract with WGBH in 2005 granting the rights to produce a “Martha Speaks” TV program and was paid an undisclosed sum at the time, according to a redacted copy of the agreement included in court filings. She also received additional payments during the production of each episode.

In her lawsuit, Meddaugh contends that some of the money donated to WGBH should count as “Martha Speaks” program revenue, since the show helps attract contributions. And Meddaugh is entitled to a portion of the gifts, she says, because the contract requires WGBH to pay her a percentage of all “net proceeds” generated by the show.

But the definition of “net proceeds” contained in the contract gives WGBH broad discretion to deduct production and overhead costs, and donations are not explicitly included, said John Taylor “Ike” Williams, an attorney at Boston law firm Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin who reviewed Meddaugh’s agreement at the Globe’s request.

“There’s nothing in the agreement that would give her a right to that [donation] money,” said Williams, who has negotiated similar deals with WGBH.

Meddaugh also claims auditors she hired to review WGBH’s accounting concluded that the station has artificially inflated expenses associated with “Martha Speaks” by including salaries of employees who do not work on the program. WGBH has fudged the program’s books to make “Martha Speaks” appear unprofitable and avoid revenue-based royalty payments, Meddaugh alleges.

Last year, WGBH paid more than $300,000 to settle a suit brought by the Department of Justice, which faulted the station’s accounting practices as “insufficient” to ensure that federal grants were used properly. WGBH acknowledged no wrongdoing in that case.

In addition to her bookkeeping complaint, Meddaugh is also challenging WGBH’s right to partner with PBS Kids on three “Martha Speaks” mobile applications, which cost $1.99 to $2.99 to download, and is contesting a sponsorship agreement with Chick-fil-A that allows the fast food chain to include “Martha Speaks” storybooks in its kids’ meals.

Meddaugh alleges that such initiatives are beyond the scope of her contract and says she has received none of the proceeds.

The Chick-fil-A deal is particularly aggravating, the complaint noted, because “the Internet is replete with information about Chick-fil-A’s antigay position, which Meddaugh abhors.”

Meddaugh’s accounting allegations could be trouble for WGBH, Williams said. He added that the eight-year-old contract does not explicitly permit the station to enter an arrangement like the one with Chick-fil-A or to sell mobile applications, which were not commercially prevalent at the time.

“A court is going to say, ‘Show me where the parties knowingly negotiated over this new technology and agreed on compensation,’ ” Williams said. “If you can’t point to that specific language, it’s a difficult test to meet.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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