ONE IS A CROWD No. 5, December 8, 2002
Intellectual Property and Middle-Earth
By Milton Batiste
It is often assumed that authors would suffer greatly without
government protection of so-called intellectual property rights.
But there are other options, as J.R.R Tolkien discovered in what
has been dubbed “The War Over Middle-Earth
The war broke out in America at an early stage of Tolkien's literary
career. He was not, at that time, as rich and famous as he soon would
become. Early in 1965, Ace Books was planning to issue an unauthorised
paperback edition of
The Lord of the Rings. Because of the state of American
copyright the publisher probably thought that this could be done
with impunity. No royalty payment was, at first, offered to the
Tolkien's authorised American publishers, Houghton Mifflin, decided to
issue their own paperback ASAP. In order to register the new edition
as copyright, Tolkien made a number of changes in the text, so that
it was technically a new book. This, however, is not the most interesting
part of the story about The War Over Middle-Earth.
The authorised paperback edition was more expensive than the Ace
Edition. The copyright edition was also handicapped by hideous, and
blatantly irrelevant, cover art, featuring among other things emus
and a Christmas tree. Many buyers preferred the cheaper Ace paperback.
Something had to be done. But what? Tolkien had an idea. The author
revealed his plan
in a letter to Rayner Unwin, his publisher in England:
The results were remarkable. American readers began to refuse
to buy the Ace paperback. Some even demanded that booksellers remove
it from their shelves. A newly formed fan-club, The Tolkien Society
of America, joined in the battle. Sales of the Ace edition began
to fall. And when the cause was taken up by the Science Fiction Writers
of America, Ace Books decided to make Tolkien an offer. An agreement
was reached. Tolkien would get paid a royalty for every copy sold.
There would be no Ace reprint when the firms stocks had been exhausted.
Things turned out just fine for the author of the Lord of the
Rings. As Tolkien’s biographer,
Humphrey Carpenter, tells us:
Tolkien was well aware of this. As he wrote in October 1965 to Rayner Unwin, before the settlement with Ace:
|Recommended reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien|