Guys, it’s been at least a few weeks since the Tolkien estate got into a copyright dispute with someone. The lucky person this time around is Daniel Grotta, author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, the very first biography of the legendary author.
The book was first published in 1976, and now Grotta wants to release an updated e-book edition (for free). But he can’t. Because the Tolkien estate’s lawyers are standing in the wings, slapping rolled-up lawsuits against their palms while backup dancers finger-snap menacingly behind them.
The story behind how the book first came to be published is pretty interesting. Tolkien’s family didn’t want Grotta to write it because J.R.R.’s son Christopher Tolkien had already hired another author for an official biography. So, like some sort of fantasy-leaning mob organization, the Tolkiens shut down all avenues of research to Grotto:
[Christopher] responded to my first request with a curt, nasty letter suggesting that I abandon the project. A follow-up letter that I sent elicited an even nastier, threatening letter that informed me that I would have no success in my research, and I could expect no cooperation from the family. What’s more, he informed me that none of Tolkien’s personal and academic associates would give me even the time of day. Indeed, as I later discovered while in Oxford, most of Tolkien’s close associates had been specifically asked by Christopher Tolkien not to talk to me. Fortunately, enough of his old friends thought that was contrary to their sense of academic freedom and openness, and agreed to be interviewed at length.”
Grotto did a little bit more wriggling and found an American edition of The Lord of the Rings—one that had fallen out of copyright into the public domain—that he could legally quote from. After Grotta’s book was published the Tolkien family threatened legal action, but they couldn’t do anything… until now. 36 years later, Architect of Middle-earth has gone out of print and the copyright has reverted to Grotta, which means he would be able to publish a new version like if wants if that American edition of The Lord of the Rings he used for quotes hadn’t been copyrighted by a retroactive law. The Tolkien estate has The Lord of the Rings on lockdown, basically, and the only way he can republish with the quotes still in is if he gets permission first.
I’m not sure whether he’s asked for that permission, but given the history there I’m assuming they’d refuse.
“We simply don’t have the resources that the Tolkien family and their publishers have. Responding to any suit from them, whether sound or not, would involve hiring a lawyer and appearing in whatever court has jurisdiction… Even if we won, the costs could bankrupt us.”
I get that there are a lot of people who want to make a lot of money off of The Lord of the Rings and that the Tolkien estate is justifiably freaked out at the possible impact of that on Tolkien’s legacy. But this might be taking things a bit far, Tolkiens. I think you should do the exact same thing Frodo should’ve done and let it go.