Mike Perry emailed me this fascinating story (350K PDF) of Tolkien’s lawyers harassing him for publishing a reference book on Lord of the Rings that lists important events in the trilogy by date.

You can relax and enjoy a long coffee break. This book was very carefully conceived. There are no trademark or copyright violations in connection with The Lord of the Rings Diary: A Chronology of J.R.R. Tolkien?s Classic Tale, ISBN: 1-58742-011-2. If you?re a fan of Tolkien?s, I imagine you?ll want to get a copy for yourself.

The book is a reference work much like a dictionary or encyclopedia. In a dictionary you?d look up Frodo and discover that his birthday was September 22. In this book, you can look up Thursday, September 22, 1418 and discover that the day was Frodo?s fiftieth birthday.

In the entire book there is not a single quote from The Lord of the Rings. Nor does it claim to be, for instance, some long-lost Purple Book of Hobbiton written by Master Samwise?s daughter or any other fictional character conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. It claims to be exactly what it is, a reference book conceived and written by a modern author. All the words are the author?s and are fully copyrightable by him.

It seems to me that their grounds are baseless. They claim it is a derivative work, and thus falls under their copyright, but if it contains only a few quotations (protected by fair use) from the original, I cannot see that it is such.

But whatever I think, they sued, and are now settling the case out of court. What’s next? Movie companies suing newspapers over plot summaries? Restaurants suing Zagat over their reviews? This expansion of “copyright” is quickly becoming absurd.

Perry has encouraged me to post this to show how copyright lawyers really behave. As he writes:

Those letters better portray how large copyright interests behave. Threats, intimidations and downright lies—like threatening to sue me in all 50 states—are more the norm. That’s unfortunate. It means people aren’t prepared when they get pounced on. By the time they recover their senses, they’ve often signed away many of their rights.

posted January 24, 2003 04:07 PM (Politics) #


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Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)