☆ Not So Shire

The Hobbit is one of our local pubs. It’s a rather seedy student-focussed music venue that serves cheap booze under fanciful names taken from Tolkien’s books. Their web site had (now removed from the pages but still on-site) of publicity material derived from the Lord of the Rings movie stills. I had always wondered how they managed to license the copyrights and trademarks from their owners and now we know the answer.  They didn’t.  And the Nazgûl have come home to roost.

This turns out to be quite an interesting case. In terms of trademark law for the name and copyright law for the recycled movie stills, I’ve little doubt the pub are in the wrong and have had this coming for a long time (possibly so long that if they went to court they might make a case that the trademarks have been abandoned…)  But in terms of popular culture, there’s an arguable case that Tolkien’s work now forms a cultural bedrock in the UK that should allow the names and ideas it has popularised to be used freely.

This is one of the areas I think we have a problem with current copyright and trademark law. It’s all framed by short-term thinking where every motive is a business motive of comparable scale and intent. It has no trapdoor for modern cultural artefacts – the songs that have entered the national psyche, the stories that have become every child’s nursery, the images that wallpaper everyone’s memory – to be released from the dragon’s grip and mutate from wealth artefact into cultural jewel.

Worse, the trend is in the opposite direction – longer monopolies, more draconian punishments for violating them (even unknowingly), the permanent annexation of popular culture by the companies lucky enough to have got away with stealing it before the law got this way. The idea of these ‘intellectual monopolies’ being a temporary gift to further the public good is all but lost, especially in the minds of the companies getting rich from them.

So while I don’t think the pub has a chance, I do think it’s worth highlighting the case in public. Sometimes the public good is served by the end of monopolies rather than by their continuation. As a friend said, can you imagine how Britain would be if Shakespeare’s estate still controlled all his works?


[Updated March 16:  They’ve removed the loyalty card images from the web site, probably as part of the settlement they have been offered. From the tone of their statement I don’t think they really understand, though, and the poster artwork is still there]

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