Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Tolkien Estate Sues to Protect Their Precious Rights

The cover page from the complaint filed in U.S. District Court by the Tolkien Estate

By now, I will guess that most of our audience has heard about the lawsuit that the Tolkien estate filed 
against Warner Brothers for its marketing of Lord of the Rings products. If you haven’t heard, The Hollywood Reporter has a pretty good summary of the case as well as a link to the court filing. I think fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings owe it to themselves to take a look. Don’t be intimidated; the salient bits of the filing itself are short and written in almost plain English.

The Tolkien estate is asking courts to define the contractual limits on Warner Brothers marketing rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, stating that the original marketing rights only included “tangible property.” They charge that Warner Brothers has gone well beyond those rights. I have no idea what exactly tangible property means in legal terms, but it is hard for me to see how United Artists, the original purchaser of the film rights, could have believed they were buying rights to create Lord of the Rings-themed hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and online slot machines. (The slot machines exist. The hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks have been patented by Warner Brothers.) The lawsuit argues that Warner Brothers is trying to convert what was a limited right to profit from J.R.R. Tolkien’s intellectual property into an unlimited right to use The Lord of the Rings and its characters as they see fit.

It isn’t just the Tolkien estate and its charitable arm that are suing Warner Brothers; it is also HarperCollins, the holder of the English language rights to both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. There is a lot at stake here for them as well. You now have a tug-of-war to decide who controls the iconography of Tolkien’s masterworks and their place in our society. On the one side you have the estate of the original creator and the publisher of his works. On the other side, there is the company behind one of the largest film franchises in history.

It is worth pointing out that it was the production company that folded at the end of round one between these two juggernauts. After laughably claiming that they didn’t make any money at all on three of the highest-grossing films of all time, the production company coughed up 7.5 percent of their profits to the Tolkien Estate in order to settle a lawsuit that paved the way for the filming of The Hobbit, according to the French paper Le Monde. We will see if they try to pull the same “we didn’t make any money” stunt on the next three films.


Mark Hubbard said...

I've been wondering how this suit affects Air New Zealand's huge marketing drive centred around the Hobbit?

Elaine Housby said...

I'm cheering on the Tolkien estate on this one. The idea of marketing gambling products using characters from a children's book is absolutely disgraceful, and I'm pretty sure they won't get away with it in the U.K., whatever happens in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mark, I don't think that Air NZ need worry about this. What is really bugging the family is the use of the characters in crassly inappropriate contexts such as slot machines. I don't think they have a problem with an airline using them just to say, Look, NZ is really nice!