Lawsuit alleges Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit merchandising infringes copyright and upsets fans
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
- Production year: 2011
- Country: Rest of the world
- Directors: Peter Jackson
- Cast: Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom, Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry
The suit [PDF], filed in a Los Angeles court on Monday, sees the Tolkien estate, its trustees and publisher HarperCollins taking legal action against Warner Bros, its subsidiary New Line Productions and the Saul Zaentz Company's Middle-earth Enterprises.
It alleges that they have infringed the copyright granted to them by releasing gambling games and online video games based on Tolkien's inventions, claiming that the 1969 sale of film rights only included limited merchandising rights to use characters, places, objects and events referenced in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These limited rights included the right to sell "tangible" products such as "figurines, tableware, stationery items, clothing, and the like", but did not include "electronic or digital rights, rights in media yet to be devised or other intangibles such as rights in services".
However, "in recent years, and particularly in the aftermath of the unprecedented financial and critical success of the films, defendants have, with increasing boldness, engaged in a continuing and escalating pattern of usurping rights to which they are not entitled — rights which belong exclusively to plaintiffs," claims the suit. The Tolkien estate and HarperCollins say they have "done everything in their power to appeal to defendants to stop this unlawful exploitation without resort to litigation", engaging in lengthy settlement discussions, but "defendants have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of ceasing their infringing and wrongful conduct".
The Tolkien estate's lawsuit describes the distribution of gambling games featuring The Lord of the Rings characters as "patently exceed[ing] the scope of defendants' rights", and says that the "infringing conduct has outraged Tolkien's devoted fan base, causing irreparable harm to Tolkien's legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works".
Tolkien fans, it says, "have publicly expressed confusion and consternation at seeing The Lord of the Rings associated with the morally questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling", with fan comments ranging from "I actually feel angry about this … this insults Tolkien … [and] is a nasty, greedy, ugly act … Whoever is responsible should be ashamed of themselves," to "if this isn't prostituting art, I don't know what is."
The suit also protests the sale of downloadable video games based on Tolkien's stories. "Defendants do not have rights to such online and/or downloadable only video games," it says. "The grant of rights in the merchandising license only gives Warner Bros and Zaentz the right to create articles of tangible personal property."
The estate is suing for at least $80m in damages over the alleged copyright infringement, and an injunction over the infringing products.
Warner Bros declined to comment to the Hollywood Reporter, which broke the story.