Anyone who has been reading here for any appreciable amount of time is likely already aware that the Tolkien Estate, representing the family of JRR Tolkien, watches over the world to seek out even the barest possibilities for intellectual property issues concerning the dead author, and then pounces on them with its horde of legal armies. The estate has even gone so far as to suggest that simply mentioning the author’s name on a button constitutes infringement. The Tolkien Estate doesn’t produce anything of public value, mind you. Nor does JRR Tolkien, who is a dead person. Instead, the estate simply nixes out any unauthorized references to the author or his famous Lord of the Rings works, for reasons I can’t really comprehend.
What’s frustratingly interesting about these stories is the bone-breaking stretching the estate goes to just to claim some kind of infringement. The latest example of this is the Tolkien Estate and Warner Bros. forcing a couple to eighty-six their Kickstarter campaign to build a “Hobbit House” on their campsite.
Last month Jan and Ed Lengyel decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the Hobbit house they’re building at their Suffolk countryside campsite. The married couple are running a successful holiday ‘glamping‘ (glamorous camping) business and thought the idyllic location would be very suitable for small house inspired by the popular movie.
Following a complaint from Warner Bros. the Kickstarter campaign was pulled offline without warning. The movie studio didn’t want the couple to use Hobbit references arguing that they infringe on their copyrights and trademarks. Faced with the sudden removal the Suffolk couple saw no other option than to give in to the demands and started editing the page.
Those edits revised the project to be called “Poddit Hole” instead of “Hobbit House,” and altered the setting for the house as existing in “Centre-Earth” instead of “Middle Earth.” Those seem like changes that are somewhat significant while still paying homage to the Tolkien works. And that’s when the Tolkien Estate stepped in, claiming that the changes were still too close to “Hobbit” and “Middle Earth” and would have to be changed further. In a bit of poetry, lawyers from the Tolkien Estate insisted that the couple refrain from using names or words that rhyme with “Hobbit.”
“The Tolkien Estate has asked us not to use ‘Poddit Hole’, which is absolutely ridiculous. We have got to call the project something, what would they like us to call it?” Ed Lengyel tells Daily Mail. “Even though we have bent over backwards to meet their demands they are still wanting more,” she adds.
I’ll say a couple of things about this. To start, I’m not entirely clear on what copyright claim either Warner Bros. or the Tolkien Estate has grounds to make. My understanding is that the house isn’t constructed to be identical to any dwelling in the films, so that isn’t it. Instead, the claim appears to rest on the copyright Tolkien’s estate claims on the word “Hobbit,” while the trademark does the same for both that word and “Middle Earth.” For the trademarks, I’m not clear on exactly when Warner Bros. or the Tolkien Estate got into the recreational camping business. If they haven’t, I’m not exactly sure where the customer confusion or competition is supposed to come in to play. As for the copyright claim on the race known as “Hobbits,” it’s not exactly a secret that the word existed prior to Tolkien’s use of it (although with an entirely different meaning), nor is it obscure knowledge that Tolkien himself based his race of Hobbits off of other fictional work. A copyright claim needs to follow specific characters or expression. Simply mentioning the fictional race as inspiration for a camp dwelling would require stretching to meet the level of copyright infringement.
And the final point, of course, is that damn it all of this should be in the public domain by now. Were it not for the extensions to copyright that occurred decades after Tolkien put pen to paper, we wouldn’t even have to be discussing any of this. Of course, nothing goes into the public domain any more.