The estate of the late author J.R.R. Tolkien has sued the producers of the film adaptations of Tolkien’s books The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the United States for copyright infringement, claiming the producers have overstepped the merchandising rights they acquired under a 1969 film rights agreement.
In a Complaint filed in a Californian District Court, Tolkien’s estate and the books’ publishers Harper Collins and Allen and Unwin claim that Warner Bros and its subsidiaries, New Line Productions and the predecessor in title, the Saul Zaentz Company, breached the agreement under which they acquired certain rights to the intellectual property in the books. The complaint relates to an online slot machine game based on The Lord of the Rings.
The complainants argue that, under the original contract, only a limited range of merchandising rights were granted in the sale of the film rights to Saul Zaentz Company. The plaintiffs contend that the merchandising rights sold related only to “articles of tangible personal property”, and specifically excluded merchandising in digital media in the form of electronic or digital rights, even though these media were yet to be invented at the time of the original contract. To support their claim, the complainants point out that the contract reserved to the estate all other rights that were not specified in the contract.
The estate and the publishers go on to claim that the producers and distributors of the blockbusting franchise have, with increasing boldness, “engaged in a continuing and escalating pattern of usurping rights to which they are not entitled”. The sale of downloadable video games based on the Lord of the Rings through social networking platforms such as Facebook is, according to the Complaint, an example of the defendants’ use of intangible merchandising rights, as there is no tangible item of merchandise that accompanies the sale of these games.
Of particular concern to the estate is the defendants’ licensing of the production and distribution of online gambling game, featuring characters and story elements of The Lord of the Rings. These games, according to the plaintiffs, not only improperly extend the merchandising rights into intangible merchandise, but also encroach on the plaintiffs’ rights in relation to gambling (which they claim the plaintiffs would never look to exploit in any event) and in the process have outraged the franchise’s dedicated fan base, causing “irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works”.
The Complaint seeks a declaration that the online slot machines infringe the copyright of the plaintiffs, an injunction against the infringing games and other products that exceed the scope of the rights grant, and more than USD $80 million in damages.
Warner Bros. is yet to respond to the Complaint.
Download the Complaint here.
 United States District Court, Central District of California, Complaint No. CV12 9912, filed on behalf of Fourth Age Limited & Others on 19 November 2012;
 Complaint paragraph 5;
 Complaint paragraph 5;
 Complaint paragraph 7;
 Complaint paragraph 8;
 Complaint Prayer for Relief paragraphs 1 – 4.
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