Tolkien estate sues Warner Brothers over Lord of the Rings digital rights

J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate and publisher HarperCollins are suing Warner Brothers (s TWX), New Line Cinema and the Saul Zaentz Company for infringing copyright on Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The complaint, which was obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, claims that Warner Brothers has “engaged in a continuing and escalating pattern of usurping rights to which they are not entitled,” for example, developing gambling games, downloadable video games and slot machines. They seek an estimated $80 million in damages and an injunction against Warner Brothers. (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hits theaters on December 14.)

When Tolkien’s estate sold Warner Brothers the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in 1969, the suit alleges, it granted “limited merchandising rights” for “articles of tangible personal property” (“figurines, tableware, stationery items, clothing, and the like”) but not digital rights. However, the complaint says, in recent years Warner Brothers has developed, licensed and sold “downloadable video games based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, available only by downloading and/or access via the Internet, via mobile apps, tablet apps or other similar digital distribution channels, or through other online interconnectivity such as Facebook.”

In addition, the plaintiffs say, Warner Brothers has “begun licensing the production and distribution of gambling games (both over the Internet and in brick-and-mortar casinos) featuring characters and story elements from The Lord of the Rings” — resulting in “irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works.”

In 2009, Tolkien’s estate and HarperCollins sued Warner Brothers’ New Line over profits from the Lord of the Rings films. That case settled.