Unless you have been recently living under a rock, you likely have seen advertisements for the upcoming film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The Hobbit, of course, is the prequel to the wildly successful Lord of the Rings film trilogy that was released several years back, and based on the much loved book of the same name.

As anyone who has been in a toy store recently can attest, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit brands have become big business. As a result, it should come as a surprise to no one that a dispute has arisen between the Tolkien Estate and Warner Brothers (the producers of the film) regarding the revenue that is derived from the brand.

A recent article in Wired outlines a lawsuit recently launched by the Tolkien Estate against Warner Brothers for $80 million, for what the Tolkien Estate alleges is unauthorized merchandizing of the brand. The suit claims that the unauthorized merchandizing includes the creation of Lord of the Rings slot machines, hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks, which the Tolkien Estate all claim all fall outside of Warner Brothers’ agreement. As the article points out, the Tolkien Estate alleges that Warner Brothers is trying to convert a limited right to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s intellectual property into an unlimited right to use the Lord of the Rings and its characters as they see fit.

The article brings up an interesting topic for consideration. How long can the estates of famous individuals control their works after the famous individual has died?

In Canada, section 6 of the Copyright Act provides that the term of a copyright shall be “the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, and a period of fifty years following the end of that calendar year”. J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973. As a result, the copyright on Tolkien’s works (in Canada at least) will run out in 2024.

Copyrights are not designed to last forever. While the estates of famous individuals may be able to control their legacies for many years after the famous individual’s death, eventually their copyrights will run out, and the famous individual’s works will become part of the public domain.

Thank you for reading.

Stuart Clark