Who owns the word "Hobbit"?
That question is at the center of an escalating legal spat between producers of the upcoming big-budget The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and a studio famous for knockoff films that is planning to release Age of the Hobbits on home video days before Peter Jackson's adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel hits theaters in December.
Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that lawyers for Warner Bros. subsidiary New Line Cinema, which is producing The Hobbit, and The Zaentz Co., which controls trademark rights to the book, have threatened Burbank-based The Asylum, arguing that its upcoming Age of the Hobbits violates the trademark in the protected phrase and threatening legal action if it doesn't change the title.
This isn't the first time Asylum, known for its low-budget "mockbusters" that often trade on the hoopla surrounding major Hollywood releases, has tangled with studio lawyers. Creating and marketing knockoff movies is legal, thanks in part to a 1993 court ruling over a rip-off of Disney's Aladdin. But studios seem to have become more annoyed in recent years as box-office revenue has been challenged and the mockbuster titles compete with the originals in Redbox kiosks, streaming sites like Netflix and even on television.
The word “Hobbit” has referred only to Bilbo Baggins and his bretheren since the Tolkien novel was first published in 1937, right? Not so, argues Asylum, whose lawyers have told New Line that the word is fair game because the Hobbits featured in Age of the Hobbits refer instead to an early hominid species.
"Age of the Hobbits is about the real-life human subspecies, Homo Floresiensis, discovered in 2003 in Indonesia, which have been uniformly referred to as 'Hobbits' in the scientific community," a rep for The Asylum tells THR in a statement. "As such, the use of the term 'Hobbits' is protected under the legal doctrines of nominal and traditional fair use. Indeed, a simple Google search of Hobbits and archaeology reveals dozens of articles containing the term "Hobbit(s)" in the title."
A rep for New Line declined to comment.
Still, the Dec. 11 release date for the knockoff film -- three days before The Hobbit opens in the U.S. -- and the similar marketing materials suggest Asylum is at least trying to trade off the mega-marketing Warner Bros. is planning for its film. Plus, the description of the film on the Age of the Hobbits website suggests a Middle Earth-like setting:
“In an ancient age, the small, peace-loving Hobbits are enslaved by the Java Men, a race of flesh-eating dragon-riders. The young Hobbit Goben must join forces with their neighbor giants, the humans, to free his people and vanquish their enemies.”
Asylum lawyers are vowing to fight any title change, but the company has backed down in a recent legal spat. As THR reported in the spring, Universal sued Asylum over its Battleship clone American Battleships, arguing that the name and similar marketing materials would confuse consumers. Asylum changed the title to American Warships.)
The Asylum rep says the studio already has taken one step to avoid confusion.
"Age of the Hobbits is not about the creatures in Tolkien's novels," the rep says in a statement. "Indeed, the artwork contains a disclaimer immediately below the title to that effect."