The writer's estate, a British charity called The Tolkien Trust, and HarperCollins, the original Lord of the Rings publisher, filed the lawsuit against New Line Cinema in Los Angeles Superior Court yesterday.
The court action seeks, among other things, in excess of $150 million in compensatory damages from New Line, as well as punitive damages, and a declaration from the court that the plaintiffs have a right to terminate any further rights to the Tolkien works, including The Hobbit.
The estimate includes everything from box-office receipts to revenue from sales of DVDs and other products.
“But in this case, New Line has left them no option at all. New Line has not paid the plaintiffs even one penny of its contractual share of gross receipts despite the billions of dollars of gross revenue generated by these wildly successful motion pictures.”
According to the complaint, the trustees and a predecessor to HarperCollins signed a contract with United Artists in 1969 for the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The trustees and the publisher claim they are entitled to a 7.5 per cent share of the gross receipts.
New Line inherited the rights to make the movies in 1998.
Bonnie Eskenazi, the trustees' US counsel who filed the complaint, said: "New Line has brought new meaning to the phrase 'creative accounting'. I cannot imagine how on earth New Line will argue to a jury that these films could gross literally billions of dollars, and yet the creator's heirs, who are entitled to a share of gross receipts, don't get a penny."
New Line was not commenting on the case last night.