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Lord of the Copyrights: Don’t Mess with Gandalf

a magic ring from the Lord of the Rings books

Recognized as one of the greatest works of fantasy fiction, The Lord of the Rings books are known by most. Whether one’s a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien or simply someone who enjoys film, its title is readily familiar. As such, it would seem pretty silly to try to replicate the story or even expand on it. Interestingly, however, that’s precisely what one author attempted to do! Claiming his pursuits were simply out of a deep respect for Tolkien, Demetrius Polychron suggested his effort was admirable. But this didn’t stop him from being the target of a copyright infringement case. And his claims did little to persuade the judge prevailing over the case.

Despite trying to pitch himself as a virtuous protagonist in the courtroom, Polychron turned out to be the villain. In fact, Polychron actually sued Tolkien’s estate, first stating a Lord of the Ring’s prequel on Amazon violated his rights. He demanded a quarter of a million dollars in damages as a result. His legal attempts failed, of course, and ultimately, Polychron was revealed as the true antagonist in this saga. It just shows it doesn’t pay to steal others’ works, especially when it’s The Lord of the Rings books. As the copyright infringement case demonstrated, you shouldn’t mess with Gandalf.

a cartoon of a copyright infringement case
Want a lose a copyright infringement case handily? Copy from famous works and see what happens.

(Sports Illustrated was busted for using AI-generated stories in lieu of actual reportage–read all about it in this Bold story.)

Riding on Tolkien’s Coattails

a Tolkien book and a pipe
Foolish people are like orcs: there are tons of them, and they’ll all lose in court.

Our story begins in 2017, when the Dark Lord Polychron approached Tolkien’s grandson, Simon, with a gift. Receiving it by mail, Simon received what Polychron claimed to be the perfect sequel to The Lord of the Rings books. But instead of receiving the blessings of the Tolkien estate, Polychron was foiled. The estate’s position has always been not to grant rights to others to further Tolkien’s stories. And in this instance, Polychron received the same treatment as anyone else. This could have been the end of our story… but Polychron believed he was in the right and proceeded with his dastardly plan!

Time passed, and all was believed to be good in Tolkien land. However, in March of 2023, Simon and others learned that Polychron’s book had been self-published. Despite their lack of approval, Polychron was actively selling his sequel to The Lord of the Rings books. Seeing it listed on both Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s online catalogs, the Tolkien estate took action. They sent Polychron a cease-and-desist letter and tried to contact him directly. But failing to persuade Polychron to change course, it became clear a copyright infringement case was inevitable. The Dark Lord had set his sights on fame, and he chose to proceed with his scheme.

Using Offense as a Possible Defense

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall with a copyright infringement case ahead, Polychron went on the offense. In April of 2023, he filed suit against the Tolkien estate instead of the other way around. At that time, the Tolkien estate had allowed the release of a prequel on Amazon streaming. According to Polychron, the series infringed on his new book’s copyright protections. Specifically, he claimed many of the episodes used Polychron’s new characters with half of his new storylines included as well. Based on this, he believed he was entitled to $250 million in damages. Forget about his spin-off of The Lord of the Rings books and copyright violations. Polychron didn’t give any credence to this and instead insisted his work was an original.

In the subsequent lawsuit that followed from the Tolkien estate, it was clear Polychron was in the wrong. His supposedly new book contained many characters from The Lord of the Rings books. These included Samwise Gamgee, Aragon, and the Dark Lord Sauron himself. Polychron had also copied at least 15 poems and literary passages verbatim, and used many of the same settings. In short, the claims Polychron made against the Amazon prequel series were exactly what he had done as well. The only difference was that the Amazon prequel’s writers had permission.

An Unhappy Ending for the Dark Lord

Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings books
Don’t mess with Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings books, and don’t violate the copyright on those books!

Polychron’s quest for fame and fortune fell well short of his aspirations. The wizard Gandalf, or in this instance the judge presiding over the copyright infringement case, pronounced quite the unfavorable sentence on Polychron. Instead of acquiring the requested $250 million he wanted, he instead had to pay $134,000 for the opposition’s attorney fees. Polychron’s lawsuit was thrown out in August as being frivolous, and the ruling for the Tolkien’s lawsuit went against Polychron, citing blatant copyright infringement. No dwarves, elves, or other supernatural beings came to Polychron’s rescue. As such, justice was indeed served.

As part of the legal verdict in the copyright infringement case, payment of attorney fees was not the only mandate. In addition, the judge stated that Polychron had cease distribution of his sequels to The Lord in the Ring books. He also was required to destroy all electronic and physical copies of the existing manuscript. As it would seem, Polychron’s day of fame has come to an end, and the end has been a rather painful one. Somewhere in the Land Beyond the Sea (where elves go to live our their lives), Tolkien is enjoying this little victory involving the protection of his works. And though the story is far from fantasy, he undoubtedly is smiling as good once again conquers evil.

(Funding court cases has become an investment strategy–read all about it in this Bold story.)

A New Era of Copyright Infringement

The copyright infringement case involving Polychron versus the Tolkien estate reflects how copyright protections should work. But as we move into this new era of generative AI, things are becoming increasingly murky. Because AI training systems use others literary, artistic, and musical works, a claim could be made for copyright violations. But the new work is indeed original despite these inputs, which can make the issue fuzzy. For now, we can feel good about verdicts like the one involving Polychron. When Gandalf says you shall not pass, you’re not passing!

 

 

AI-Generated Content Is Creating Some Thorny Legal Questions–Read About Them In This Bold Story.

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