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Warner Bros. Settles $80M J.R.R. Tolkien Merchandising Case

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, who is widely considered the father of modern fantasy literature, has settled the $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. as a result of a dispute over the merchandising rights for "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies. The films were adapted from Tolkien's seminal works by the same name, which were licensed to United Artists back in 1969.

At the heart of this dispute were allegations that Warner Bros., the distributor for United Artists, had gone overboard with their merchandising. Tolkien's estate asserted that the limited merchandising rights did not extend to all the different products being made, especially the casino slot machines that were named and based upon Tolkien's works. While no dollar amount has been publicly stated related to the lawsuit, one can only imagine that it is substantial, given that Tolkien's estate was willing to settle and publicly state the settlement was amicable.

Why Do Merchandising Rights Matter?

When push comes to shove, merchandising rights matter because we live in the age of mechanical reproduction, and "that's where the real money's made." When people can own a piece of art, it serves a purpose to the individual person. Whether that piece of art is helping to shape their identity, or simply gives them pleasure to view on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis, owning a piece of art can be transformative.

In today's society, a film, or other piece of media, may not immediately jump out as art, thanks to the devaluation of art in our entertainment culture. However, merchandising makes owning a piece of a work of art even easier. Every single time you put on your Spaceballs, the Movie, t-shirt, you can't help but chuckle about the merchandising scene. Owning that t-shirt lets you re-experience that feeling you had the first time, and may even help you build a greater appreciation for that work of art.

For Tolkien's estate, when the merchandising extended to casino slot machines, it was clear there was a problem as those that knew Tolkien knew he would never have approved of these. The estate alleged in their lawsuit that allowing gambling machines and video games tarnished the legacy left behind by Tolkien, and was never permitted by the original agreement. At this point, it is unclear whether the estate will only get monetary damages, or whether the offending mech will be pulled from circulation. 

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