Amazon’s LOTR ‘Rings of Power’ Series Was Bad. The Lawsuit Over the Series Was Even Worse.
Earlier this week, a California federal judge delivered a verdict with profound implications for writers and creatives alike.
On August 14, 2023, Judge Stephen Wilson ruled on a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by a fan-fiction writer, Demetrious Polychron, against Amazon Studios and J.R.R. Tolkien's heirs. Polychron had sought a staggering $250 million in damages, alleging that his sequels to "The Lord of the Rings" had been shamelessly plagiarized by these entertainment giants.
The verdict, however, did not favor the aspiring writer.
Judge Wilson found that Polychron's works were "lifted lock, stock, and barrel" from Tolkien's iconic fantasy series, and thus not entitled to copyright protection.
Demetrious Polychron's journey into the world of "The Lord of the Rings" began with his own unauthorized sequel titled "The Fellowship of the King," which he registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2017. Despite his hopes for collaboration, Polychron's attempts to engage with the Tolkien Estate Limited and the Tolkien Trust were met with rejection, as they maintained a longstanding policy against licensing sequels. Undeterred, Polychron even hand-delivered a copy of his manuscript to Tolkien's grandson in the United States.
With all avenues seemingly closed, Polychron turned to the courts, alleging that Amazon's TV series "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" infringed upon his copyright. This legal battle caught the attention of the writing and creative community, sparking discussions about the delicate balance between inspiration and intellectual property rights.
Why It Matters.
While the outcome of this case may not be surprising to legal experts, it serves as a cautionary tale for writers and creatives. The key takeaway is the importance of respecting copyright boundaries when crafting derivative works. In this case, the court ruled that Polychron's work was an unauthorized derivative of Tolkien's masterpiece, making it ineligible for copyright protection.
Furthermore, the court emphasized that for a work to be protected, it must contain new and original expressions that are substantially dissimilar from the original. This underscores the need for creators to ensure their works are not merely reproductions or adaptations of existing intellectual property.
In the end, the Polychron v. Bezos case serves as a stark reminder of the ever-present risks associated with fan fiction. When copyright holders permit fan fiction to flourish, they may inadvertently open the door to potential legal disputes in the future.
For now, this lawsuit has been dismissed (an appeal seems unlikely given that it was probably filed largely for publicity purposes), but it leaves us with a valuable lesson in intellectual property law. Just as the One Ring met its fiery end in Mount Doom, a copyright infringement case must stand on its own merits. If the allegedly infringed material was itself infringing, then it is highly unlikely to find a sympathetic audience in court, regardless of how much it may pity the creepy little guy in the loincloth following it around and whispering, “Precioussssss.”