‘Unauthorized Use of Hobbit:’ Hollywood targets little guys

Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins in 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' set for release this year
JRR Tolkien wrote a story 75 years ago about brave little men who courageously fought “the bigger guys” in Middle Earth. Now, there is a similar plot in real life – with a Hollywood giant threatening a small Hobbit-themed pub with legal action.

­While the lawsuit attempts to "fight piracy,” the major million-dollar copyright violators seem to be out of Hollywood's sights. Instead, small businesses, unable to fight against giant corporations, are more likely to be pursued.

A small pub called ‘The Hobbit’ in Bevois Valley Road, Southampton, UK, has been welcoming fans of the Tolkien trilogy for more than twenty years. One can not only enjoy the interior and exterior, made in the style of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings classics, but also taste cocktails named after the books' characters, like Frodo and Gandalf. But now it looks like the Big People, speaking in Tolkien terms, have come to threaten the Little People’s little simple pleasures.

A multi-national California-based company owned by movie producer Saul Zaentz has warned the pub's owner that they must remove all artwork and other references to the book – also the movie by now – otherwise the pub could face legal action, the Daily Echo writes. Zaentz owns the worldwide film, stage and merchandising rights to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, which is scheduled to be released by the end of this year.

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Pub The Hobbit, Southampton
Pub The Hobbit, Southampton

­Stella Roberts, 41, the landlady of the pub, says her small business simply does not have the funds to stand up to the big guys like Zaentz.

“We just haven’t got the resources to fight it. How can I take on a multi-million pound power?” – she told the Daily Echo.

“We never planned to steal anybody else’s ideas – we’re all such huge fans of Tolkien that it’s more like a homage,” Roberts added.

Pub regular Ann-Marie O’Halloran said, “I think it’s very symptomatic of the little guy verses the big guys – people who have the money have all the rights and that’s the way the system works. It’s like hobbits versus orcs.”

The outlet was urged to change its name and theme by the end of May, otherwise legal action would be taken for copyright infringement.

A online campaign as been launched to save the unique look and theme of the Tolkien fans' beloved pub, already gaining over 3,000 supporters. Heather Cartwright, who launched the campaign, says  part of the fun of The Hobbit is its theme: “I can’t think of any other pub where I’ve walked past a Ringwraith, or had the pleasure of being able to say: ‘I’ll have a Gandalf, please.’”

Back in November 2011, lawyers from the Saul Zaentz Company accused a café in Birmingham called the Hungry Hobbit of copyright infringement. In a letter titled “Unauthorized Use of Hobbit,” they ordered the café's owners to stop using the word ‘hobbit,’ saying it would be detrimental to the brand and would suggest that SZC endorsed the outlet, Torrenfreak.com writes. The café had been using its name for six years by that time. And a small Scottish company producing something called “hobbit houses” also received a warning from Zaentz lawyers, and was forced to comply with the demand.

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Hungry Hobbit, Birmingham
Hungry Hobbit, Birmingham

­Of course, the principle question arising is what the SZC has to do with the fantasy folk name introduced by Tolkien back in 1937, when The Hobbit was first published. The author himself said he invented the word when he started writing the book. He claimed that what could have inspired him were the Snergs created by Edward Wyke Smith along with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit. Tolkien recalled that The Hobbit began from a scrap on a piece of paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – a phrase he suddenly wrote when grading a set of student essays.

However, even Tolkien’s authorship is debated: according to some sources, as early as in 1895, folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham mentioned hobbits in his works. And now, whether the hobbit is 75 or 125 years old, Mr. Zaentz is claiming authorship – and the proceeds – from ‘Gandalf’ cocktails or sandwiches served under the Hungry Hobbit's sign.