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JRR Tolkien Estate Threatens Lawsuit Over Book Featuring Tolkien As Character (Exclusive)

J.R.R Tolkien
Haywood Magee/Getty Images

A Texas author is at odds with the J.R.R. Tolkien estate over plans to publish a fictional book that features Tolkien as a character and includes a critical analysis of Tolkien's books.

Stephen Hilliard is going to court in an attempt to release "Mirkwood, A Novel About J.R.R. Tolkien," to be published by Cruel Rune. The 450-page book is described as taking place from 1970 through near-present day in the United States and features six characters -- five fictional and Tolkien himself. "Mirkwood" is portrayed as both a piece of fiction as well as an exercise in "literary criticism." Hilliard hints that the book will take issue with the lack of female characters in Tolkien's works, including "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" series.

But on the verge of releasing the book, Hilliard says he was sent a cease-and-desist letter from the Tolkien estate, which alleged that it had a property right to commercially exploit the name and likeness of J.R.R. Tolkien. The estate also alleged that the cover art and typefaces in "Mirkwood" were similar to Tolkien's work to a degree that it would provoke unfair competition. The demand letter threatened Hilliard with a lawsuit if he didn't cease publishing the novel and destroy all copies. 

Hilliard isn't waiting around to find out whether the Tolkien is serious about its legal threat. Yesterday, he filed a lawsuit in Texas District Court seeking a declaration that the Tolkien estate's claims were precluded by the First Amendment and by fair use.

In some ways, this saga is a worthy successor to the intrigue that surrounded the controversy over "60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye," an unauthorized sequel by a Swedish author to J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." That book featured J.D. Salinger himself in a fictional setting too, which caused legal alarms for Salinger before he died. Salinger successfully got a New York federal judge to enjoin the publication of the book. The matter was then settled, with the author agreeing to only publish the book outside the U.S. and agreeing not to market the book as a sequel.

There may be differences in the two cases, however. "60 Years Later" was said to include some of J.D. Salinger's characters, including Holden Caulfield, whereas "Mirkwood" doesn't seem to be represented as a sequel in any way. In Hilliard's complaint, he cites other fictional books that have used real celebrities as characters, including "Blonde," featuring Marilyn Monroe, "The Hours," featuring Virginia Woolf, "Libra," featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, and "Underworld," featuring Jackie Gleason, J Edgar Hoover, and Frank Sinatra.

The latest dispute is another example of how publicity rights and freedom of speech are crossing swords with each other, a topic that's been on the docket this week in disputes. See here and here.

Here's the complaint: