An author is suing Amazon and The Tolkien Estate for what he claims is copyright infringement in The Rings of Power, last year's TV show based on the appendices of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. How could a show based on JRR Tolkien's work under license from The Tolkien Estate violate the intellectual property rights of some guy from LA named Demetrious Polychron? The perplexing answer is that Polychron published—on Amazon, ironically—a work of Lord of the Rings fanfiction called "The Fellowship Of The King," and that's what he claims has been infringed upon.
Polychron set the stage for this lawsuit over several years. First, he registered the book with the US Copyright Office in 2017, which establishes when it was completed and gives him the legal basis to sue (without indicating any judgment by US courts). According to Polychron's legal complaint, which PC Gamer has reviewed, he then sent a letter to Simon Tolkien, grandson of JRR Tolkien and director of The Tolkien Estate, describing The Fellowship Of The King and requesting a review of the manuscript. He got no response.
Polychron was not dissuaded, and here's where things take a bit of a turn.
In 2019, "with excitement to collaborate with [The Tolkien Estate] and the anticipation of publishing his book to the public," Polychron hired an attorney to contact The Tolkien Estate again. The Tolkien Estate's attorney "rebuffed any attempt at collaboration the very next day," according to the complaint. So Polychron says he then personally delivered a copy of the manuscript to Simon Tolkien "at his home" and notes that he included "the © symbol" on the manuscript.
Polychron got no response to the dropped-off manuscript, if you can imagine that, so he wrote a letter asking for it back and informing Simon Tolkien that "he would publish TFOTK, and an additional six book series, independently."
Polychron followed through and published The Fellowship of the King in September 2022, which happens to also be when The Rings of Power started airing. The novel is available for purchase on Amazon itself.
Polychron admits in the complaint that the book is "inspired by the LotR and JRR Tolkien," but claims that it is nevertheless a "wholly original book and concept" which The Rings of Power rips off in a variety of ways.
By my estimation, it's more appropriate to say that Polychron's book is based on, not inspired by, The Lord of The Rings. Its prologue is set in The Shire, and the first character introduced is "Elanor Gamgee Gardner, daughter of Samwise and Rosie." Polychron's dedication page even dedicates the novel to "the life and work" of JRR Tolkien and son Christopher Tolkien, followed by the sentence: "If not for you, this would not be." It is undoubtedly Lord of the Rings fanfiction.
And yet, Polychron apparently thinks he has a case, arguing that similarities between The Rings of Power and The Fellowship of the King constitute infringement. His book contains a hobbit character named Elanor, and so does The Rings of Power, for example. It bears mentioning that the character in Polychron's book is Elanor Gamgee Gardner, a character from The Lord of the Rings, which was written by JRR Tolkien. The harfoot Elanor in The Rings of Power is a new character who, if I had to guess, was probably named Elanor because that's the kind of name a proto-hobbit would have, as established by JRR Tolkien, the guy who created hobbits and first named one of them Elanor, and whose work Amazon has a license to adapt.
Polychron wants $250 million for his trouble, but I doubt Jeff Bezos is too worried about this one.
For storytellers who aren't Amazon, however, this kind of audacious copyright complaint can be scary. Game of Thrones author George RR Martin notoriously dislikes fanfiction, and in a 2010 blog post related a story about author Marion Zimmer Bradley, who apparently wound up scrapping a novel she was working on because a fanfiction writer who'd written a similar story demanded co-authorship.
Copyright complaints in the world of gaming are common, too, credible or otherwise. A couple recent, interesting cases (which I don't intend to imply are similar to this one): In 2021, a guy sued Activision over a character from Modern Warfare, claiming that he'd created the character first for a film project, and last year, Capcom and a photographer resolved a lawsuit brought by the latter over textures used in Resident Evil 4.
Gaming's most notable recent copyright case is between the developers of extraction hack-and-slasher Dark and Darker and their former employer, Nexon, which claims that the team is using materials they made while they still worked at Nexon. Dark and Darker got booted off Steam for now, but the devs are still working on it (and it's pretty fun).
Intellectual property rights are messy things: Even without lawsuits from fanfiction writers, the Lord of the Rings copyright situation is complex. The Rings of Power had to be based on appendices, because Amazon's deal with The Tolkien Estate didn't give it the right to adapt the main Lord of the Rings texts for television. Many of the rights to adapt JRR Tolkien's works are currently held by Embracer Group, the Swedish holding company that keeps buying game studios, and which bought Middle-earth Enterprises last year.
It doesn't look like the cancelled Lord of the Rings MMO that Amazon was going to make will ever happen—there was some kind of beef between Amazon and Tencent—but there's a Gollum game from Daedalic on the way, at least. That game was in the news this week on account of its Elvish-language DLC.