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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Tolkien Estate Wins Copyright Lawsuit

In one of the least surprising court rulings of 2023, the estate of the late writer J.R.R. Tolkien and the entertainment and consumer goods conglomerate Amazon won a copyright battle with a Lord of the Rings fan fiction writer who had sued Amazon and the Tolkien Estate, claiming the Amazon spin-off show The Rings of Power infringed on his own derivative novel titled The Fellowship of the King.

Amazon and the Tolkien Estate won the legal battle against Demetrious Polychron after he sued them in April 2023 for $250 million. While Polychron's lawsuit was summarily dismissed with prejudice in August by a California judge, the Tolkien Estate countersued the author for infringing on its copyright.

A U.S. district judge then ruled in favor of the Lord of the Rings owner, granting the Tolkien Estate a permanent injunction to prevent Polychron from "copying, distributing, selling, performing, displaying, or otherwise exploiting" The Fellowship of the King or its sequel The Two Trees. Polychron now must destroy all physical and electronic copies of them as well as pay $134,637 in attorney’s fees and litigaton costs to both Amazon and the Tolkien Estate, for what Judge Steven V. Wilson called an "unreasonable" lawsuit which was "frivolous from the beginning".

A representative of the Tolkien Estate emphasized the significance of this legal triumph, stating, "This victory underscores the commitment of the Tolkien Estate to safeguard the integrity of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved works. Unauthorized attempts to commercialize these treasured narratives will not be tolerated."

The initial lawsuit cited Polychron's efforts to collaborate professionally with the Tolkien Estate, including the submission of a trademark for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE KING and subsequent attempts to engage in dialogue. However, it was revealed that these attempts were rebuffed, leading to the author's independent pursuit of publication.

The lawsuit emphasized similarities between Polychron's work and elements from Tolkien's universe, such as shared character names. Notably, the use of the name 'Elanor' in both works was a focal point, drawing attention to its presence in The Rings of Power, as well as its prior usage by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.

Why It Matters.

Fan fiction refers to stories, narratives, or derivative works created by fans based on existing books, movies, TV shows, or other forms of media. These works are often inspired by and set within the established worlds and characters of the original source material. Fan fiction writers use their creativity to expand upon or re-imagine existing storylines, characters, or settings, often sharing their work within fan communities online.

While fan fiction can be a wonderful way for fans to engage with their favorite stories and express their creativity, it often exists in a legal gray area due to copyright issues. Copyright law grants exclusive rights to the creators of original works, allowing them to control how their creations are used and distributed. When fan fiction borrows heavily from copyrighted material without permission, it can potentially infringe upon these rights.

Fan fiction writers should be cautious about infringing copyright in the source material. And to navigate these legal complexities, some fan fiction communities operate under specific guidelines or platforms that encourage originality, limit commercialization, and promote respectful engagement with copyrighted material. Seeking permission from copyright holders or creating transformative works that significantly differ from the original source material can also mitigate potential copyright issues.

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