Warner Bros. Settles Lawsuit With Tolkien Estate

Warner Bros. and the estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien have settled their legal fight after five years of litigation. In 2012, the famous author’s daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, and his estate, joined up with publisher HarperCollins to sue Warner, its New Line subsidiary and Rings/Hobbit rightsholder Saul Zaentz Co. The estate sold the rights to the films in 1969 along with some merchandising rights.

The fight revolved around the digital exploitation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In the lawsuit, the estate alleged that the defendants infringed copyright and breached contract by overstepping their authority. The plaintiffs claimed that a decades-old rights agreement entitled the studio to only “tangible” merchandise based on the books, such as figurines, clothing and stationery, but not other digital exploitations. They said the studio had overstepped the mark with video games, apps and gambling games.

The most recent legal battle began after an attorney for the Tolkien Estate received a spam e-mail about the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Online Slot Game. The estate called the digital exploitations highly offensive. The complaint filed in court alleged irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation from the defendants actions. The estate sued the studio for $80 million in damages plus legal costs for copyright infringement.

Warner Bros. filed counterclaims against the estate, saying that the repudiation of a 1969 contract and 2010 regrant caused the studio to miss out on millions in Hobbit licensing. Warner also claimed that digital exploitations are both customary and within its scope of rights. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Warner Bros. had properly asserted contract claims.

The terms of the settlement haven’t been publicly disclosed. However, a legal filing said the two parties had resolved their differences “amicably.” The filing also says that no fees or costs are to be awarded by the court and that no party is entitled to recover fees or costs.

A Warner Bros. spokesperson said in a statement, “The parties are pleased that they have amicably resolved this matter and look forward to working together in the future.” An attorney for the Tolkien estate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

New Line and the Tolkien Estate had fought previously over profit participation. The two sides reached a deal in 2009 that was estimated to be worth more than $100 million. That resolution allowed the studio to move forward with its trilogy of films based on “The Hobbit.”

The “Rings” trilogy director Peter Jackson also sued New Line over profits that he claimed were owed from the first film. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were released between 2001 and 2003. The trilogy won 17 Academy awards, a record for a movie trilogy. He settled that case in 2007. He then went on to direct “The Hobbit” films. His Hobbit series was released between 2012 and 2014.

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