Friday, August 7, 2020

Tolkien Enterprises vs. TSR

So, for years I've been convinced that the old story about the Tolkien Estate having gone after TSR for their use of hobbits, ents, balrogs et al in early printings of D&D was wrong and that it was actually Saul Zaentz's group, Tolkien Enterprises (the movie merchandising people) who'd issued that cease-and-desist back in 1976. But while I've able to build up a probable case I've been lacking direct proof. Now Gygax has provided it.

The question Gygax was asked was

What were the circumstances on the hobbit race being removed
 from the original game? Was a letter from Tolkien properties 
sent to TSR threatening legal action?  or was it a more friendly 
phone call to remove the buggers from the game?

to which Gygax replies

TSR was served with papers threatening damages 
to the tune of half a mil by the Saul Zantes (sp?) [sic]
division of Elan Merchandising on behalf of the tolkien
 [sic] Estate. The main objection was to the boardgame 
we were publishing, The Battle of Five Armies. The 
author of that game had given us a letter from his attorney
claiming that the work was grandfathered because
it was published after the copyrights for JRRT's works
had lapsed and before any renewals were made. 
The action also demanded we remove balrog, dragon,
dwarf, elf, ent, goblin, hobbit, orc, and warg from 
the D&D game. Although only balrog and warg
were unique names we agreed to hobbit as well,
kept the rest, of course. The boardgame was dumped,
and thus the suit was settled out of court at that.


While clearly an off-the-cuff response made years after the event, this account clearly grasps the distinction between Tolkien Enterprises (Saul Zaentz's movie merchandising company, later the licensers of MERP) and the Tolkien Estate (Tolkien's family, who had control over the books themselves, rather than all the paraphernalia). It correctly portrays Tolkien Enterprises as the more aggressive of the two. And there was a period when Tolkien's copyrights were challenged in the courts, which eventually ruled that the rights had not lapsed and that the Tolkien family still had control. Even the story about asking for legal assurance and getting bad advice sounds familiar; I've heard a similar story about Iron Crown's TOLKIEN QUEST and (especilly) NARNIA QUEST pick-a-path books.

There are quite a few other references to Tolkien and the early days of D&D, which I'll try to pull together into a third and final post regarding the CHEERS GARY book once I've finished with it and read all the way through. But the Tolkien Enterprises bit more than makes picking up this book worthwhile.

--John R.
--current reading: CHEERS GARY


Paul W said...

I've always been put off by the drive by some fans to demonize the Tolkien Estate. I've been especially flummoxed and annoyed by the Gygax fans who followed his lead (seen mostly in Dragon magazine back in the day) in denigrating Tolkien's work generally.

I'd be shocked anyone with any knowledge of the Enterprises/Estate differences would have disagreed with you. Everything about that letter sounds like an Enterprises action. Interesting that they licensed MERP soon thereafter (1982) rather then D&D. I wonder if TSR was offered a chance at that tie in or if it was never on the table. (I understand you tried to get the rights for later, in the 1990s but that it was a relatively short lived attempt?)

I also wonder if the new Amazon series is basically going to be MERP as a TV show. It seems likely to struggle under similar chronological constraints.

Marcel R. Bülles said...

This is an absolutely splendid find! How many times did I have to listen to "the family sued D&D!" And today, even though they have renamed themselves to Middle-earth Enterprises, the misunderstanding still continues.

Ah, poor halflings!

zionius said...

I believe I have settled the dispute
If you follow this case on PACER, you can find many more files about Tolkien Enterprises's legal actions.