Judge Won't Disqualify Tolkien Lawyers in 'Hobbit' Fight

Fighting claims that it has gone beyond the scope of its rights, Warner Bros. made a bid to disqualify Greenberg Glusker from representing the plaintiffs.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

In the midst of a grueling fight over whether Warner Bros. and Saul Zaentz Co. have infringed copyright and breached contract by licensing Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit slot machines and video games, the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien will get to keep its lawyers.

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In June, the defendants brought a motion to disqualify Tolkien's law firm of Greenberg Glusker and attorney Bonnie Eskenazi for allegedly gaining access to privileged information through Alan Benjamin and William Bernstein, two former in-house lawyers for United Artists, said to be the "the only living percipient witnesses" to a 1969 agreement whereby United Artists was granted rights to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.

In reaction to charges that the law firm had breached professional code by interfering with loyalty and confidentiality owed by the former studio lawyers, Eskenazi told the judge that MGM (which acquired UA) wasn't a party to the litigation, that Warner Bros. delayed its motion for over a year, that Benjamin and Bernstein's roles in the 1969 agreement were limited, and that the law firm had proper communications with both of them.

On Tuesday, a California federal court judge pointed to the caution taken by Greenberg Glusker in communicating with Benjamin and Bernstein.

Tolkien's lawyers hired separate counsel to interview them in deposition. Bernstein, though, is in failing health and won't be deposed. As for Benjamin, he was asked by Eskenazi to return a retainer. His services as an expert were terminated.

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"Greenberg’s concessions moot the bulk of Warner and Zaentz’s requested relief," writes the judge.

"Nevertheless, Warner and Zaentz continue to press for Greenberg’s disqualification for the alleged misconduct," the judge continues. "After considering the Tolkien/HC Parties right to chosen counsel, Greenberg’s years of work on this litigation, the length of time that has passed since Bernstein or Benjamin’s involvement with United Artists (approximately 45 years), and the extremely attenuated relationship between Warner and Zaentz and United Artists, the Court concludes that Warner and Zaentz have not met their burden of showing that disqualification is necessary to preserve the integrity of these proceedings."

The case over the scope of Warners' rights proceeds.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner