Five-year legal battle over 'Lord of the Rings' merchandising rights settled

A five-year battle between the estate of “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien and Warner Bros. over whether Frodo, Gandalf and their pals can be used to push online gambling, among other assorted digital products, has come to an end. 

In 2012, the author’s estate and publisher HarperCollins filed an $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros., its New Line subsidiary and the Saul Zaentz Co., over merchandising rights granted in an initial 1969 agreement. Warner Bros. turned the “Lord of the Rings” books into a $5.8-billion global box-office giant.

The deal struck nearly 50 years ago gave its licensees rights to use details from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” novels to sell “articles of tangible personal property,” excluding books and printed published material. 

It did not, the estate and publisher argued in their initial filing, extend rights to market the world of Middle-earth beyond “tangible” goods.

Enter: The Internet, social media, downloadable goods, apps and a whole new world of digital moneymaking.

At the center of the 2012 beef were several intangible ways Warner Bros. was allegedly circumventing the restrictions of the agreement to milk the “Lord of the Rings” franchise digitally and online, via downloadable video games and particularly in the arena of online gambling.

Lawyers for the estate identified an online slot game based on 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and argued that the studio’s additional licensing of the property for use in physical casino games harmed the legacy and reputation of Tolkien, who died in 1973.

They also called out Warner Bros. for registering trademarks or intent to use applications to extend licensing to “hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, ringtones, online/downloadable games and housing developments.”

Attorneys for both parties gave no details of their settlement agreement in a June 29 filing but issued a joint statement declaring an end to the long-running lawsuit.

“The parties are pleased that they have amicably resolved this matter and look forward to working together in the future.”

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