From JRR to LOTRO: the Descent of Creative Ownership

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I’ve talked plenty in the past about writing being a collaborative effort – how I wake the raptor at 1am to check a story idea with him, borrow character traits from my friends, use roleplay for inspiration, etc. All well and good on the amateur scene (although I obviously try and get permission from the people I’m borrowing from), but when it comes to publication there are these things called ‘copyrights’ that come into play.

Which Middle Earth?

Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit necessarily required copyright permission to retell those stories on the silver screen. Unfortunately the Tolkien Estate had already sold the copyrights to some of the lesser known works, so anything that was covered in those works could not be referenced in the films. Rumour has it that’s why, in the film of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is never referred to by his original name. Now, I’m a huge fan of what Jackson has done with those stories and, for the most part, he’s stayed fairly faithful to the original plot. Changes, however, have been made. It’s an interpretation rather than a pure retelling.

Then it starts getting really interesting. Off the back of the films came Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) – an online multi-player game. The Tolkien Estate promptly sued Jackson and New Line Cinema for copyright infringement in 2012. The response? That the content of the games was based purely on Jackson’s films, which were themselves covered by copyright. In effect, the Middle Earth of LOTRO was no longer Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Cover Versions

There’s a strong argument for saying that reinterpretation gives the audience a chance to learn something different about the story, and that that development creatively belongs to the cover artist rather than the original. That a radical repackaging essentially creates something new – or at least as new as we get in a world where, according to Andre Gide, ‘everything that needs to be said has already been said’. As an example, I’d like to share one of my favourite covers ever which – despite keeping the same words and essentially the same tune – is nonetheless a very different song to the original:

When Fanfic Goes Bad

Fanfic,  for the uninitiated, is ‘original’ fiction based on published settings and characters as written by the fans. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad and some of it’s really, really ugly. Don’t google Harry Potter fanfic unless you’re absolutely sure you can take the fallout. I mean it.

Anyway, 50 Shades of Grey is famously fanfic that made it big – stories based on the world and characters of Twilight, with a few tweaks to disguise the fact. E.L. James is now as big as Stephanie Meyer, complete with upcoming films. It’s the kind of success that every budding author dreams of. To my knowledge, however, there were no copyright purchases involved. Meyer’s story was simply repapered, repackaged and retold.

Community buy-in to a story is key to its success and, as Charles Caleb Cotton said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ But at what point does building on the original become a form of creative theft, in the moral sense if not the legal one?

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One response »

  1. I’m of the ‘there’s nothing original’ school. We’re always building on what others have done before, and that means there’s no clear line between the new and the old repeated or reinterpreted. Legally, that makes it hard to strike a balance between protecting the interests of those who’ve created existing works and those who want to play with elements from them, and I think that the ability for rights to be owned by companies or inherited by descendants messes with the system. Morally, there are no simple answers, but now I’m going to go away and think about where the line is for me.

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