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 author.

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:

“Incidentally, I am making a point of including a note in every answer or acknowledgement of ‘fan’ letters from the U.S.A. to the effect that the paperback edition of Ace Books is piratical and issued without the consent of my publishers or myself and of course without remuneration to us.”

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:

“Ace had unwittingly done a service to Tolkien, for they had helped to lift his book from the 'respectable' hard-cover status in which it had languished for some years and had put it at the top of the popular best-sellers. And by now a 'campus cult' had begun.”

Tolkien was well aware of this. As he wrote in October 1965 to Rayner Unwin, before the settlement with Ace:

“I am getting such an advt. from the rumpus that I expect my ‘authorized’ paper-back will in fact sell more copies than it would, if there had been no trouble or competition.”

Recommended reading   The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien