The Tolkien Estate is the legal body which manages the property of the English writer J. R. R. Tolkien, including the copyright for most of his works. The individual copyrights have for the most part been assigned by the estate to subsidiary entities such as the J. R. R. Tolkien Discretionary Settlement and the Tolkien charitable trust. The various holdings of the Tolkien family, including the estate, have been organized under The Tolkien Company, the directors of which are Christopher Tolkien (till August 2017), his wife Baillie Tolkien, and J. R. R. Tolkien's grandson Michael George Tolkien. The executors of the estate proper were Christopher Tolkien (deceased Jan 16 2020), who was sole literary executor, and (succeeding J. R. R. Tolkien's lawyer Frank Williamson) Cathleen Blackburn of Maier Blackburn, who has also been the estate's solicitor for many years.
The lawsuits below refer to an entity entitled Fourth Age, Ltd. which was formed in November 2011. Although court records do not reflect this, according to UK corporate records Fourth Age, Ltd. changed its name on 21 February 2013 to Tolkien Estate, Ltd. Its directors include Tolkien family members Baillie Tolkien, Priscilla Tolkien, Simon Tolkien and Michael George Tolkien, as well as the Tolkien Estate attorney, Steven Andrew Maier, and formerly included the late Christopher Tolkien.
Rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Exclusive worldwide rights to motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights in certain literary works of J. R. R. Tolkien including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were sold by Tolkien himself to United Artists in 1969 and are currently owned by Middle-earth Enterprises (formerly Tolkien Enterprises), inc., a company controlled by Saul Zaentz until his death in 2014.
United Artists is reported to have paid Tolkien just over £100,000. Although it is often repeated that Tolkien sold the rights for a "pittance" in order to pay a tax bill, the sum he was paid was approximately equivalent to £1,377,000 to £3,842,000 in 2015 and in addition to it he retained a 7.5% royalty interest in any future adaptation (transmitted to the Tolkien Estate on his death).
In 1976 United Artists sold most of their rights to Tolkien's work to Saul Zaentz Company, who have licensed all subsequent authorized adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through Middle-earth Enterprises. However United Artists retains the world distribution rights to film adaptations. These are currently exercised by their parent company MGM, which under contract co-financed The Hobbit film trilogy.
In February 2008, the Tolkien Trust sued New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for £75 million claiming they had not received "even one penny" from the films. A request for punitive damages was denied in September 2008. (In March 2008, New Line Cinema became a unit of Warner Bros. Entertainment.) The case was resolved out of court on 8 September 2009 with the terms not made public.
In a press release, Christopher Tolkien stated, "The Trustees regret that legal action was necessary, but are glad that this dispute has been settled on satisfactory terms that will allow the Tolkien Trust properly to pursue its charitable objectives. The Trustees acknowledge that New Line may now proceed with its proposed films of 'The Hobbit.'"
In November 2012 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Fourth Age Limited, the Trustees of the Tolkien Trust, and publishers Harper Collins Publishers, Ltd., Unwyn Hyman, Ltd. and George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd. sued Warner Bros. Digital Distribution, Inc., a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc.; Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. as successor-in-interest to New Line Cinema Corp.; Warner Brothers Consumer Products, Inc.; Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Inc.; New Line Productions, Inc.; and the Saul Zaentz Company, doing business as Middle-earth Enterprises, alleging copyright infringement, breach of contract, and declaratory relief, arguing that the defendants exceeded the scope of their rights.
The suit alleges that by producing gambling and video games using his characters, the parties ignored the limitations of the rights purchased more than four decades ago in 1969; contending the original licence to Tolkien's works was limited to the right to sell "tangible" products such as "figurines, tableware, stationery items, clothing, and the like", but did not cover "electronic or digital rights, rights in media yet to be devised or other intangibles such as rights in services". Tolkien's estate claimed that the defendants actions had caused "irreparable harm to Tolkien's legacy".
On 11 March 2013, the Saul Zaentz Co. (doing business as Middle Earth Enterprises), the rightsholder for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit properties, filed an amended counterclaim against Fourth Age for declaratory relief, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and quantum meruit. On the same day, the Warner Parties filed an amended counterclaim against Fourth Age for breach of contract and declaratory relief.
The Tolkien Estate et al. attempted to block these countersuits under California's anti-SLAPP statute, claiming that Warner Brothers was interfering with their right to petition under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. On 11 July 2013, US District Judge Audrey Collins denied a motion to dismiss, saying what Warner Brothers was doing was making "disguised claims for malicious prosecution" and wrote "these claims arise out of the parties' divergent understanding of the Warner Parties' and Zaentz's rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. They are routine contract-based claims and counterclaims." In October 2015 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld that ruling.
The lawsuit was confidentially settled in July 2017.
On 13 November 2017, it was announced that Amazon had acquired the global television rights to The Lord of the Rings, committing to a multi-season television series. The series will not be a direct adaptation of the novel, but instead will feature stories that are set before it. Amazon said the deal included potential for spin-off series as well. The press release referred to "previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings". Amazon will be the producer in conjunction with the Tolkien Estate and The Tolkien Trust, HarperCollins and New Line Cinema.
Christopher Tolkien's resignation
On 31 November 2017, at age 93, Christopher Tolkien resigned as a director of the Tolkien estate and the Tolkien trust, while remaining as the literary executor. He died on 16 January 2020 at the age of 95.
- "'Middle-earth scholar' Christopher Tolkien dies". 2020-01-16. Retrieved 2020-01-18.
- "cathleen blackburn". maier blackburn. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
- http://www.theonering.net/torwp/2013/07/16/75725-making-sense-of-the-latest-tolkien-lawsuit/ - Making Sense of the latest Tokien Lawsuit - 16 July 2013
- "Focus: Tolkien sold film rights to Lord of the Rings to avoid taxman". The Times 15 December 2002 (retrieved 2018-05-23).
- "Tolkien sold film rights for £10,000". Evening Standard 7 December 2001 (retrieved 2018-05-24).
- Measuring Worth - Relative Value of UK Pounds (retrieved 2018-05-24).
- "JRR Tolkien's estate to sue Lord of the Rings filmmakers New Line Cinema over profits". The Telegraph 17 February 2008.
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7637693.stm - No punitive damages in Rings case - 26 September 2008.
- https://screenrant.com/the-hobbit-lord-of-the-rings-lawsuit-settled-ross-24883/ - Great News For The Hobbit: LOTR Lawsuit Finally Settled - 9 September 2009
- https://www.scribd.com/document/153237062/Tolkien-Order - Fourth Age Limited et al. v. Warner Bros. Digital Distribution Inc et al.
- "Tolkien estate sues Hobbit producers over video and gambling games". The Guardian. 20 November 2012.
- https://www.scribd.com/document/123187959/Rings-counterclaims - Case 2:12-cv-09912-ABC-SH Document 21 Filed 01/18/13
- https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/warner-bros-can-sue-tolkien-835296 - Warner Bros. Can Sue Tolkien Estate For Breaching 'Hobbit' Contract - 28 October 2015
- J.R.R. Tolkien's estate and Warner Bros settle Hobbit and Lord of the Rings lawsuit The Telegraph
- "Amazon will run a multi-season Lord of the Rings prequel TV series". Ars Technica. 13 November 2017. Archived from the original on 14 November 2017.
- "Amazon announces 'Lord of the Rings' TV show". CNN. 13 November 2017. Archived from the original on 14 November 2017.
- "Christopher Tolkien resigns as Tolkien estate director". Tolkien Society. 15 November 2017.
- Seelye, Katharine Q.; Yuhas, Alan (16 January 2020). "Christopher Tolkien, Keeper of His Father's Legacy, Dies at 95". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 16 January 2020. Retrieved 16 January 2020.