Strange things are afoot in Middle-Earth

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2011

I imagine you’ve already heard about The Last Ringbearer, a retelling of Lord of the Rings from the Mordor side of the fence. I rather wish I had the spare time to read it, as the underlying concept is brilliant: it really speaks to our Zeitgeist of revisionism and polarised politics, and also addresses a lot of the major criticisms of Tolkien’s epic.

It also shines a light on intellectual property law. The fact that it’s available in English translation for free (meaning that writer Kirill Yeskov makes no money from it, but gains a whole load of profile and notoriety off the back of a book that has already done very well in Europe) means that, for now, the Tolkien estate isn’t gunning for a take-down. But would a take-down be justified? You could certainly argue that it’s a derivative work, but then so is the well-known (and frankly tedious) parody Bored Of The Rings; if the latter is protected by fair use, why shouldn’t the former be protected under the same terms? Is derision the only protected form of commentary on cultural artefacts? (If so, that might explain the general tone of, y’know, the entire internet… 😉 )

The lack of warning salvos from the Tolkien estate suggests that they don’t think The Last Ringbearer is a battle worth fighting, because they’re happily taking aim at other works related to Tolkien and his output. Texas author Stephen Hilliard is looking to publish a novel that features Tolkien as a character, and is pitching it as a work that combines historical fiction and literary criticism; the Tolkien estate has issued a cease-and-desist on the grounds that it has “a property right to commercially exploit the name and likeness of J.R.R. Tolkien”. [via SlashDot] I’d have thought they’d just angle for a cut of the profits, but apparently they just want Mirkwood squashed completely. I can’t decide whether that’s less disappointing or more so… or what this means for my long-considered series of short stories about a simulated reincarnation of Hunter S Thompson solving crimes in a posthuman future*. I’m certain, however, that the Streisand Effect may end up biting the Tolkien estate on the backside.

All of which reminds me of my amusement yesterday when I saw “Harlan Ellison®” in a press release. If you’ve got enough reputation and clout (plus the money and/or patience to wrangle lawyers), you can protect your name and work to the utmost; whether or not it’ll make the majority of the world think you’re being a pompous dick is another matter entirely.

[ * See that? That’s my prior art claim, right there; if anyone gets to do it, it’s me. ME! ]