By Joseph Leray
This holiday season, let us all be thankful for civil litigation: now that Epic is finished taking Silicon Knights to the cleaners, the estate of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien is suing Warner Bros. to the tune of $80 million for copyright infringement and breach of contract, just a few weeks before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hits box offices in December.
The issue dates back to 1969, when the Tolkien estate signed a contract with Saul Zaentz Co. — who still owns the rights to the upcoming Hobbit film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy — that entitle the firm to license “tangible” merchandise based on the books. Contracts from the 60s obviously don’t cover things like, say, online gambling, but the Tolkien estate reserved all rights not specifically covered by the agreement.
In short, Warner Bros., New Line, and Zaentz Co. aren’t allowed to branch out and license an online slots game. Which is exactly what they did.
“Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Online Slot Game” is exactly what it sounds like: a slots game which pictures of Frodo, Aragorn, and Arwen plastered all over it. The game can be found hosted at numerous online gambling sites, with users paying real money for spins. The lawsuit claims that Tolkien’s representatives became aware of the game in 2010, when a spam e-mail appeared in their lawyer’s inbox.
Tolkien’s estate calls the slot game “offensive” and “exploitative,” but here’s the kicker: “Not only does the production of gambling games patently exceed the scope of the defendants’ rights, but this infringing conduct has outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base, causing irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works.”
I suppose fans can make their own conclusions about the suit — do casino games tarnish Tolkien’s legacy, or is his estate upset that it’s been carved out of the gambling profits? – but this bit of posturing rings true to me: J. R. R. Tolkien was a devoted Christian and would likely be very uncomfortable with his characters being used in an online slot machine.
Lastly, the suit alleges that settlement talks between the two sides have been unproductive.