The estate of J.R.R. Tolkien is suing Warner Brothers over the creation of an online slot machine, reports Hollywood Reporter. The lawsuit is claiming over $80 million in damages, claiming the merchandising was unauthorized.
This comes just weeks before the studio releases The Hobbit, based on a Tolkien book.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday in Los Angeles. It was brought by the Tolkien estate and HarperCollins. The lawsuit claims that Warner Brothers and Saul Zaentz, the rightsholder to the Lord of The Rings franchise, have infringed on the copyright and are in breach of contract.
The estate claims that a rights agreement allows the studio to create "tangible" merchandise based on the books, as opposed to "intangible" merchandise such as digital merchandise.
While this is a copyright case, the estate planning issue in the case deals with literary and intellectual property rights and an estate's ability to enforce certain covenants and contracts.
For an estate of an artist or writer, money and valuables aren't the only asset left behind when the artist passes away. The art can keep on giving, long after the artist is gone. This can come in the form of royalties and licensing fees.
That's where copyright comes in. It's not always fair game for everyone to use references and characters from a dead artist's work. There are rights to those images and references. And many times, those rights are spelled out in the estate plan. Sometimes, those rights are owned by a corporation or trust. Other times, they might belong to an heir, or to several heirs.
According to the lawsuit, The Lord of the Rings is the second most read book in the United States, after the Bible.
With a literary work that is so popular, the stakes are high. A contract between the estate and the defendants gave limited merchandising rights to the defendants.
The complaint is long, but one of the key issues will focus on the damages to the estate and the brand of LOTR when the characters are used in online casinos. But the case is only in its infancy, and there's a long road ahead.
This case only goes to show how complex estate planning for artists can be and now intricate some of the details in these estate plans are.
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