Tolkien bustJohn Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892, and his long and richly productive life ended on September 2nd, 1973. That longevity, however, also means that enthusiasts are having to wait a very long time indeed for any of his great body of work to find its way into the public domain. As Everybody’s Libraries noted back on Public Domain Day 2013, if the U.S.  had not passed its latest copyright extension act in 1988, “we would be seeing works published in 1937, such as the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, now entering the public domain.  (If the U.S. hadn’t made any post-publication extensions, we’d also have the more familiar revision of The Hobbit, in which Gollum does not voluntarily give Bilbo the Ring, in the public domain now as well, along with all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.)   Folks in Canada and other “life+50 years” countries, now celebrating the public domain status of works by authors who died in 1962, may be able to freely share and adapt Tolkien’s works in another 11 years.”

The copyrights in Tolkien’s various works are managed by the Tolkien Estate and its subsidiaries, presided over by Christopher Tolkien, his son and sole literary executor, and other family members. The Tolkien Estate devotes most of its own website to promoting projects under its own purview, such as Tolkien’s early translation of Beowulf, leaving the other properties in the hands of subsidiary entities like the J. R. R. Tolkien Discretionary Settlement and the Tolkien Trust.

At least in the case of the Tolkien Estate, copyright law is fulfilling its original intended purpose of enriching the immediate descendants of the creator. Its application in the case of Tolkien’s works could also serve as a test case for whether life+75 years is a proper extension of its term to cover those descendants, or whether life+50 is more appropriate, as in Canada. And here’s one very long and impassioned discussion of the whole topic. That is, if these matters ever get settled by reasoned legal argument instead of the lobbying powers of media special interest groups and their political patsies.

Not that I’d want to recommend anyone to go to websites outside their own home jurisdiction and engage in copyright legislation lobbying arbitrage of course. It might be hobbit-forming …


  1. now if “public domain” meant a persons work would from now on always be free, that does not sound like such a rip off. But if “public domain” really just means someone else will be able to profit off of a person’s work, that is a rip off.

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