September 17, 2001
With the time lag in this forum (as opposed to the message
boards) this information may have already been provided. Steve L. said, "However, I
don't know to what extent people can do that without obtaining legal permission from
whoever holds the rights to his works. After a certain period of time, though, any
published work becomes public property; and I think that period may have already lapsed
where LOTR is concerned. I'm not sure. If anyone has legal knowledge concerning such
matters [then there's a partial sentence that I suppose was eaten by the computer]."
I'm not a lawyer, but I did some research on the Library of Congress website and found
some facts. For works being published today, the copyright limit is 70 years after the
death of the author (or the last surviving author if there were more than one).
A different law applies to works published before 1978, which would include LotR even if
you use the second edition. The website goes through a history of how the law was changed,
which I won't go into, but the end result is that such a work can be protected for a total
of 95 years (the rights first expire after 28 years, then can be renewed for another term
of 67 years, and I don't think we have to worry about the Tolkien estate forgetting to
renew the rights). If you take the earliest publication date (FotR in 1954), that would
mean the copyright would expire in 2049.
The website points out that this is U.S.A. law, and other countries differ, but also says
that many countries have signed accords that give them at least a good degree of
similarity. Both the U.S. and U.K. have signed every accord that's come down the
pike, but I'm not sure exactly how _much_ their laws harmonize. Any Brits here who
So LotR is not in the public domain and won't be for quite some time. If you're
young, you may get a chance to publish that novel based on Middle-earth after the
copyright expires. Since I was "born" the same year as FotR, I'm not counting on
On some Tolkien sites, you may notice something called "Fan Fiction." That's
fiction based on a work that's still under copyright protection. Legally, this writing
cannot be copyrighted and no profit can be made from it. So a lot of these authors share
their work with other fans for free over the internet. This applies to other
"franchises," of course. I've seen fan fiction based on Star Wars, Xena,
Star Trek, and on and on.
I'm very grateful the Tolkien estate takes the copyright seriously, because it has kept
Middle-earth as one of the few secondary creations that hasn't been altered by someone
besides the author. Frank Baum somehow didn't protect his rights, and other people
started writing Oz books almost immediately, continuing up to the present. C.S. Lewis's
rights are now owned by a publisher, who is planning to hire authors to write completely
new Narnia stories. If you think JRRT purists are upset about the movies, you ought to see
how CSL purists feel about those upcoming books!
Regarding movie rights, I'm 95% sure (someone correct me if I'm wrong) those rights were
actually sold by JRRT himself before he died. They were sold to the Saul Zaentz company
(not sure exactly how the company is titled), who still has the say over who uses them.
Bakshi had to go through Zaentz, as did New Line, to get permission to make their movies.
Anything you see that has "Tolkien Enterprises" on it (instead of the Tolkien
estate, who still control the _books_) has received its licensing through Zaentz. This
includes figurines, RPG's, etc. That's why we may see two competing LotR RPG's soon: there
could be one based on the books (which would need permission from the Tolkien estate), and
another based specifically on the movies (licensed by Saul Zaentz). Does all of this give
you a hint as to how "intellectual property" lawyers earn their keep?
Something I learned recently has increased my respect for JRRT's insight and wisdom. When
he sold the rights to Zaentz, one condition of the sale was that Zaentz would _never_ give
movie rights to Disney. Disney has put out some good movies based on books, but I've yet
to see one that stays even remotely close to the original story. Thank you Professor!