Film producer Saul Zaentz owns the film, stage and merchandising rights to JRR Tolkien classics such as The Hobbit. Ostensibly to protect those rights, lawyers for the company are now threatening small businesses across the UK with ruinous legal action if they don’t stop using the term ‘Hobbit’ – a word that may not even have been created by Tolkien.
When Hollywood paints their version of the piracy picture, they’re careful not to mention the millionaires and the affluent who do rather well despite unauthorized copying. Instead they focus on the little guys who make coffee and run errands on set, and the mom and pop businesses scraping an honest living on the periphery.
But when the big rightsholders feel under threat, they’re happy to crush those very same people in pursuit of money. Cue an awful story today from the UK’s Daily Echo.
For the last 20 years a little pub in Southampton, England, has been serving beer to the local community and all that time it’s had the same name – The Hobbit. But Saul Zaentz, the producer behind movies such as The English Patient and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has sent in the lawyers to do something about that.
Zaentz owns the merchandising rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and his lawyers have warned that if the pub doesn’t change its name and remove all references to Tolkien-related items by the end of May, its owners will be sued for infringement.
Understandably its owners are upset. They can’t afford to fight the studio but their pub’s very identity is now at risk. People supporting a Facebook campaign against the studio’s threats is growing quickly.
But even more worrying is that this action by Zaentz against a local pub doesn’t sit in isolation.
In November 2011, Zaentz sent his lawyers to threaten the owners of a small cafe in Birmingham, England, near to where Tolkien was born. The sandwich bar, known as The Hungry Hobbit, was accused of copyright infringement despite operating under the name for the last 6 years. The current owners are first-time business owners of less than a year’s standing.
In a letter titled “Unauthorized Use of Hobbit” – Zaentz’s lawyers ordered the owners of the cafe to stop using the word Hobbit or face legal action, claiming that the sandwich bar’s use of the term would be detrimental to the brand and would leave people to believe that the outlet is endorsed by Zaentz.
But the threats don’t even stop there. A small company in Scotland making wooden lodges dared to refer to one of their products as “hobbit houses” on their website. Of course, Zaentz sent in the lawyers and the company were forced to comply.
But let’s step back for a moment to see what the origin of the word ‘Hobbit’ actually is. Was this something conjured up from the depths of Tolkien’s imagination in 1937, a product of his mind and his mind only? That’s up for debate.
In 1895, folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham listed a massive collection of interesting creatures in his publication ‘The Denham Tracts Vol 2‘ which included “. . . nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants..”
And, of course, ‘Hobbits’.
It seems absolutely ridiculous that 125+ years after an imaginary creature was reported somehow a company can come along and turn the lives of normal people upside down over the use of its name.
Trademarks may have to be protected, but being a heartless bully can’t be the answer.