One of the biggest movies set to debut this holiday season is “The Hobbit,” based on the well-known fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. This film follows in the footsteps of the very successful “Lord of the Rings” movies made over the last decade and a half. However, the release of the film is coinciding with a lawsuit filed by Tolkien’s estate against certain companies using material from the series. The case is a testament to the fact that proper estate planning can have implications many years after a passing –even half a century later . That is because the assets passed on at death are not necessarily just physical property, bank accounts, and other material that is finite at the time of the passing. Instead, trademarks, copyrights, and patents can also be given which may have implications far into the future.
In this case, according to a story published recently by Guardian News, Tolkien’s estate is claiming damage to his legacy as a result of certain gambling products and games using the Hobbit character and themes. The defendants in the case include the producers of the upcoming film version of The Hobbit. More specifically, the estate claims that the copyrights which were granted to the producers were infringed by use of the material in this way–for gambling and online games.
The sale of the copyright was alleged to be limited, occurring decades ago in 1969. The family’s suit suggests that the limited sale of the copyright allowed use of the story for films as well as the sale of “tangible” products. The family claims that this did not include use of the likeness for online games or other digitial material. Of course, considering the copyright sale took place in 1969, well before the rise of the internet or personal computing, it is unlikely the sale included much reference to these online efforts.
According to the claims in the suit (the complaint can be read here), the family attempted to negotiate with the production companies but have not been able to reach agreement. As a result, they were forced to file suit in order to stop the infringing conduct and seek recourse for the losses sustained as a result of the infringing copyright.
New York Estate Planning
When reading stories like this one, it is easy for New York families to assume that these sort of details are unique only to high-profile celebrities or artists. However, issues over use of copyrights, patents, and similar material are common among many different local families. Many businesses, for example, have significant assets related to their protected material beyond cash, stocks, and bonds, real propert, and personal property. For that reason, it is critical that all families act prudently when conducting estate planning, so the use, value, and financial benefit from those more unique assets ultimately go to the intended beneficiary, instead of being exploited down the road by others.
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