July 6, 2017

The JRR Tolkien estate, Warner Brothers, and HarperCollins, sitting in a tree, counting money


Once upon a time there was a ring, and it was good. I mean, it was bad. Very bad. It was a ring to rule all the other rings… most of which had been made by adorable and sexy elves. It turned out the elves were being wise and awesome protecting Middle Earth as they do, and then Sauron was like no-I-want-power-graaaaar and screwed the whole thing up by making his ring. And then Warner Bros made three films about the aftermath of the ring brouhaha based on a deal they had penned with J.R.R. Tolkien several years before his death. (For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Tolkien’s masterful fantasy cycle The Lord of the Rings.)

Almost forty years later, the movies reached theaters, and Tolkien’s heirs, along with his publisher HarperCollins, felt they’d been had. In many cases, they were right, as we reported here, when parent company Time Warner withheld money from the rightholders through some seemingly fuzzy accounting. And until two days ago, a protracted legal fight continued to rage over subsidiary licensing of Tolkien’s characters and stories.

As Sopan Deb reported in the New York Times, that fight may be over. Deb writes, “‘The parties are pleased that they have amicably resolved this matter and look forward to working together in the future,’ Warner Bros. said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.”

As the story goes, representatives of the Tolkien estate filed the suit after receiving a spam email for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Online Slot Game. Aside from wanting to win the jackpot, which I assume was a replica of Andúril (the flame of the west made of the shards of Narsil), they also wanted to stop the game from bearing LOTR branding, which Tolkien had sold only for “tangible personal property” like figurines, and not for “media yet to be devised.” Naturally, the estate and HarperCollins sued.

Not one to roll over and pay royalties too easily, Warner Bros decided to fight back. Via Tim Loc at LAist:

“Warner Bros. would counter-sue, saying that the legal challenge had cost the studio ‘millions of dollars in license fees,’ and had hampered marketing for the Peter Jackson-directed movies. The barrage of lawsuits dove deep, with Warner Bros. asking a judge to disqualify the law firm representing the Tolkiens; the studio alleged that the firm had obtained privileged information through two lawyers who were associated with the 1969 agreement.”

In the past five years, tempers have cooled and dollar signs have dangled in front of the eyes of the rightholders. Although the full terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed, we can assume that it was for a lot money, money to protect the damaged spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien — who might not have intended for his beloved Gollum to refer to someone’s mega-jackpot as “his precious.”



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.