In a hole in the ground there lived a lawsuit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet lawsuit, filled with the ends of contracts and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy lawsuit with nothing interesting in it to read: it was a Hobbit copyright lawsuit, and that means…money.
Actually, there are a couple of recent infringement suits involving the new J.R.R. Tolkien-based flick and we’ll take a look at both. Right, off we go to Ye Magickal Lande of District Court!
In the first suit, Tolkien’s estate sued Warner Brothers for copyright infringement of the super popular Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books. The complaint – for $80,000,000 – was filed just before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, first in a trilogy of films Warner Bros. will somehow wring out of JRR’s original Middle Earth novel. Also named in the suit are Warners’ New Line subsidiary as well as the Saul Zaentz Co., which owns certain LOTR/Hobbit film and merchandising rights. (But that’s not really news because everybody likes to sue Saul Zaentz).
In a not too ironic twist, it was only last March when Zaentz threatened a copyright infringement suit against a pub in Southampton, England called “The Hobbit’, demanding that all Tolkien-ish references be removed from the quaint establishment. Reportedly, Gandalf himself came to the rescue: Ian McKellen stepped up to pay a copyright license fee on behalf of the bar.
The estate’s new gripe is that the studio has developed, licensed and sold ”video games based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, available only by downloading and/or access via the Internet, via mobile apps, tablet apps or other similar digital distribution channels, or through other online interconnectivity such as Facebook.” You know what that means? Digital slot machines. Behold:
Classy. Tolkien’s estate alleges that when it sold Warner Brothers the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — in 1969 — it only granted limited merchandising rights for ”articles of tangible personal property” meaning ”figurines, tableware, stationery items, clothing, and the like.” The grant did not include ”exploitations such as electronic or digital rights, or rights in media yet to be devised.” Now, I’m no Internet historian but I’m pretty sure video slot machines weren’t readily available to the kids at Woodstock. In fact, as I watched Neil Armstrong hop around the moon and the Mets beat the Orioles in the World Series that year I distinctly remember not going online to do a little gambling.
So what’s gonna happen, good people of the Shire? Well, the last time Tolkien’s estate sued New Line over profits from the Lord of the Rings films (in 2009) the case settled. An Unexpected Journey is making all kinds of loot at the box office so there’s plenty of settlement gold to go around. We will see if the estate (and publisher Harper Collins) are truly concerned about the wholesomeness and integrity of the fantasy world JRR dreamt up, or whether they’re just trying to wrest an extra bag of gelt out from under the dragon.
In the other suit, Warner Bros. and Zaentz (notice how I’m not making any Saul/Sauron puns?) filed trademark claims against The Global Asylum Inc. Who’s Global Asylum, you ask? They’re the bunch of chumps that produced a film called Age of Hobbits and tried to release it three days before An Unexpected Journey hit the theaters. The company is best known for ”mockbusters;” films that trade off the success of major box office flicks. Asylum’s other titles include Paranormal Entity, Almighty Thor, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, and Titanic II. Yes, Titanic II. What’s next, Hindenburg: The Sequel?
Naturally, Age of Hobbits has nothing to do with Tolkien’s books, characters, Middle Earth or anything that you might find in your local head shop. Rather, as Asylum argued in its defense, it’s an action movie ”about the real-life human subspecies, Homo Floresiensis, discovered in 2003 in Indonesia, which have been uniformly referred to as Hobbits’ in the scientific community.” (I am not making this up, by the way.) Here’s their synopsis: ”In an age long ago, the last village of clever, peace-loving Hobbits is attacked and enslaved by the Java Men, komodo-worshiping, dragon-riding cannibals. Now the young Hobbit Goben, along with his father and sister, must seek help from the giants’ (human hunters) to find the Javas’ lair and rescue the last surviving Hobbits, Goben’s mother among them. In their quest to destroy the Javas, the heroic partnership of humans and Hobbits will transform both species forever!” (I didn’t make that up, either.)
The District Court out here in sunny L.A. granted a temporary restraining order enjoining the release of Asylum’s Age of Hobbits film, finding that Warner Bros., Saul & Co. were likely to succeed on their trademark claims. After winning the injunction, Warner Bros. brayed: ”This victory underscores the importance of protecting the unique work of our industry’s creative community from companies like Asylum, whose cynical business model is designed to profit from the work of others.” I like that: “cynical.” Like, say, hawking LOTR slot machines without permission? Or maybe just cranking out three mega-budget films from a single slim novel?
Two more movies to go. Will folks learn not to infringe the precious intellectual property in these treasured volumes? Not for the last time, Bilbo wished he had signed my engagement letter and mailed me the retainer check before he left Rivendell. He pulled his cloak tighter about him and hurried up the winding stones, deeper into the mountain.