Tolkien Estate & Warner Bros. Land in Lord of the Reels Lawsuit

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Publish: March 12, 2013

Legal battle lines have been drawn between the Tolkien Estate and Warner Bros. over breach of contract following an alleged copyright infringement of the iconic series of Lord of the Rings books by author J.R.R. Tolkien. The catalyst for the $80 million lawsuit was the release of the online slot game, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which has resulted in seemingly incendiary litigation proceedings over claims that the renowned studio had overreached its contractual agreement pertaining to “tangible” merchandising.

The Tolkien Estate, along with book publisher HarperCollins, argue that Warner’s existing agreement only allows for the studio to produce “tangible” merchandise such as clothing, toy figurines, stationery items, and other such products based on the books. The pivotal definition of the term “tangible” products is seemingly described by the Estate as those products which existed at the time in which the contract was drawn up with the still-current rights holder, Zaents Co, in 1969. It is therefore claimed that the current contract does not carry provisions for the creation of an online slot machine or other digital products such as downloadable video games, which are available on smartphones, tablets and prominent social networks such as facebook.

It is the estate’s assertion of the contract that, at the time, tangible items constituted the full extent of the copyright. The contract  therefore would not have made provisions for the extension of those rights to evolve with technology, thereby denouncing Warner for an “escalating pattern of usurping rights to which they are not entitled” by extending the contract towards digital and downloadable products which have only come into commercial use in more recent years.

The Estate claims to have learned about the game in question via its attorney, who received a spam email relating to the game in September of 2010. This has resulted in the pursuit of an injunction and $80 million in damages against Warner Bros. The Tolkien Estate further claims that the legendary author’s legacy has been tainted, as a large section of Tolkien’s fan base had been vociferous in their opposition to the game. The litigation suit asserts that many fans have voiced their disapproval about the game and wrongly believe that the Estate is the responsible party for allowing this to take place.

The Tolkien Estate has therefore produced a list of categories of products they believe to be contentious, but it is understood that they take specific exception to the gambling products which have been developed without their knowledge or consent. Warner Bros. could not be reached for further comment.

Last updated May 20, 2015