Tolkien Estate Lawsuit: Gambling with Frodo a No-no

The upcoming release of the next J.R.R. Tolkien film adaptation promises to sweep Hobbit fever across the nation once again. With “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will come a flood of merchandise, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. But not everyone is jumping up and down with excitement. In fact, the Tolkien estate itself is hopping mad.

The estate and HarperCollins, which published Tolkien’s legendary books, have filed an $80 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The suit accuses Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and Saul Zaentz Co., which holds the rights to produce merchandise based on Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” series, of copyright infringement and breach of contract.

The Tolkien estate says that the rights agreement limits Warner Brothers and the other defendants to “tangible” merchandise only, such as figurines, clothing and stationery. The agreement, drafted in 1969, does not allow the production and release of gambling and online video games, existing products that the estate has deemed offensive. The plaintiffs say that the explosive commercial success of the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy has led the defendants to repeatedly overstep their rights, in the process doing harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation.

The suit also contends that fans of Tolkien are vehemently opposed to the association between The Lord of the Rings and online and casino gambling. The plaintiffs say fans have publicly decried the games, calling them an insult to Tolkien and his characters.

What makes this lawsuit so interesting from an estate planning perspective is the fact that Tolkien could never have anticipated such a battle over electronic and digital rights at the time of the agreement. He may have had an imagination like no other, but the future he envisioned likely didn’t have Frodo and Gollum duking it out on an electronic slot machine.

You may be no more likely to predict the future as you’re making your own estate plans, but the next best protection is specificity. The Tolkien estate has a strong case because the rights agreement very clearly limits the rights to tangible objects. The more exact you can be in describing what you want to happen with your estate, the better protected you may be in the long run.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, “Tolkien Estate Sues Warner Bros. Over ‘Lord of the Rings’ Slot Machines (Exclusive),” Matthew Belloni, Nov. 19, 2012