Tolkien estate sues Warners, New Line, Saul Zaentz

Suit says trio overstepped boundaries of 43-year old agreement

The estate of J.R.R. Tolkien has filed suit against Warner Bros., New Line and the Saul Zaentz Co., claiming that they overstepped the boundaries of a 43-year-old agreement by licensing slot machines, online videogames and other merchandise based on “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Monday, seeks at least $80 million in damages.

The estate, along with other plaintiffs including HarperCollins, also says that the defendants have registered trademarks or “intent to use” applications for “services licensing” such as hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, casino gambling and even housing developments.

A spokesman for Warner Bros. said the studio had not seen the suit and had no comment.

The suit cites a 1969 agreement that granted limited merchandising rights in “all articles of tangible personal property” other than novels, paperbacks and other publishing.

“They did not include any grant of exploitations such as electronic or digital rights, rights in media yet to be devised or other intangibles such as rights in services,” the suit states. “To emphasize the limited nature of the grant, plaintiffs predecessors-in-interest specifically reserved ‘the right to utilize and/or dispose of all rights and/or interests not herein specifically granted.'”

The suit claims that, since the success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Warner Bros. and Zaentz have “with increasingly boldness” engaged in “a continuing and escalating pattern of usurping rights to which they are not entitled.”

What appears to be of particular irritation to the estate is the licensing of gambling games on the Internet and in casinos. “Not only does the production of gambling games patently exceed the scope of defendants’ rights, but this infringing conduct has outraged Tolkien’s devoted fanbase, causing irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works.” The estate says that “fans have publicly expressed confusion and consternation at seeing ‘The Lord of the Rings’ associated with the morally questionable (and decidedly nonliterary) world of online and casino gambling.”

The 1969 agreement was signed by a previous executor corporation representing the rights and United Artists. Through a series of pacts, those rights eventually landed with Zaentz, New Line and Warner Bros.

The suit says that settlement talks have failed. The complaint claims copyright infringement and breach of contract, and it seeks a declaration from the court of the limitation to the merchandising rights.

A team led by Bonnie Eskenazi of Greenberg Glusker represents the estate.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is scheduled for release in the U.S. on Dec. 14.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • La Rouei

    Lumiere Festival to Premiere Epic Restoration of 'La Roue'

    LYON, France  —  This coming Saturday and Sunday, the Lumière Festival will turn back the clock nearly one hundred years as the festival premieres a new completed reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1923 masterpiece “La Roue” (“The Wheel”) that restores the classic to its original 7.5 hour length. Consisting of a prologue and four movements, “La [...]

  • Lina Wertmuller portrait

    Lina Wertmuller’s Exceptional Career Revisited

    In the still American-led realm of the Academy Awards, it’s unusual for the helmer of a film not in the English language to score a Best Director nomination. It’s far rarer still, meanwhile, for a woman to be nominated in the category at all: just five have done so in 91 years. Only one director, [...]

  • Fifth Seal

    Lumière Festival Honors Hungary, Screens Classics ‘Women,’ ‘The Fifth Seal’

    For the fifth year running, Lyon’s Lumière Festival will honor Hungarian cinema and invite guests of the Hungarian National Film Fund to present two classic Hungarian films from important national filmmakers, Márta Mészáros’ “Ők ketten” (“Women”) and Zoltán Fábri’s “Fifth Seal.” Both films will be presented by Lumière Festival special guest Marina Vlady on Oct [...]

  • Godzilla

    Criterion Collection President Peter Becker on Storytelling, Bergman vs Godzilla, B-movies

    LYON, France  —  The Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) kicked off on Tuesday in Lyon, France, with a keynote address by Criterion Collection President Peter Becker. The exec discussed the company’s storied history and evolution over the decades into a leading publisher of classic and contemporary films from around the world in high-quality [...]

  • Manuel Chiche

    Boutique Distributor Manuel Chiche Offers A State of The Industry

    LYON, France  — Manuel Chiche is riding high. Since June, his boutique distribution outlet The Jokers set admission records with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” selling nearly 1.7 million tickets in France and still going strong as the film heads into its 19th week in theaters. Indeed, “Parasite” is now the second most successful Palme d’Or winner of [...]

  • Toni

    Italy’s L'Immagine Ritrovata Expected to Take Over France’s Eclair Cinema

    LYON, France  —  Leading Italian restoration company L’Immagine Ritrovata’s acquisition of renowned film lab Eclair Cinéma, announced last month, is expected to be approved by the French Commercial Court of Nanterre at the end of November or beginning of December, according to a source familiar with the deal. L’Immagine Ritrovata’s French subsidiary, L’Image Retrouvée, last [...]

  • Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

    Film Review: 'Jay and Silent Bob Reboot'

    In a film culture overrun by Marvel epics, wild-stunt action flicks, and other grandiose juvenilia, it is often said that the mid-budget, script-driven movie for adults is becoming a thing of the past. But don’t tell that to Kevin Smith, whose “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” a shaggy antic throwaway that premiered Tuesday in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content