The word 'hobbit' has certainly been seeing a lot of legal action lately, thanks to the Saul Zaentz Company and Middle-earth Enterprises, which own trademarks on various Tolkien terms. First there was The Hobbit pub, which was threatened with legal action if they didn't change their name, but settled on a licensing deal thanks to support from 'The Hobbit' actors James Frey and Sir Ian McKellen. Then came 'Age of the Hobbits,' a rather obvious cash-in low-budget film from The Asylum studio, which claimed their hobbits had nothing to do with Tolkien's. They're also facing legal action demanding the title be changed. Yet today, the legal brawl has extended into the scholarly realm, as a professor who had planned to use the word 'hobbit' in his lecture title was forbidden permission by the SZC.
Dr. Brent Alloway, an associate professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, had planned a free lecture alongside the two archaeologists, Professor Mike Morwood and Thomas Sutikna, who discovered Homo floresiensis in 2003--a species that has been referred to in various scientific reports and talks as 'hobbits.' The original lecture was called, 'The Other Hobbit,' and was scheduled alongside the premiere of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.'
Unfortunately, when Dr. Alloway approached SZC to ask for permission to use this term, he was told:
...it is not possible for our client to allow generic use of the trademark HOBBIT.
Dr. Alloway and his associates responded as such:
I am very disappointed that we're forbidden by the representatives of the Tolkien Estate to use the word 'Hobbit' in the title of our proposed free public event … especially since the word 'Hobbit' is apparently listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (and hence apparently part of our English-speaking vocabulary), the word 'Hobbit' (in the Tolkien context) is frequently used with apparent impunity in the written press and reference to 'Hobbit' in the fossil context is frequently referred to in the scientific literature (and is even mentioned in Wikipedia on Homo floresiensis). I realise I'm in unfamiliar word proprietry territory (as an earth scientist) … so I've gone for the easiest option and simply changed our event title.
The lecture is now titled 'A newly discovered species of Little People – unravelling the legend behind Homo floresiensis.' SZC's response may be indirectly (or not so much) related to its recent legal action against 'Age of the Hobbits,' as The Asylum responded to their legal demands saying:
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. 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.
So it appears SZC is now cracking down on even the scientific habit of referencing the species as 'hobbits' in order to forestall any further such rationalization and tighten their legal control of the term. While SZC has an obvious reason to want to protect the widespread use of a word that can directly influence the franchise they own, it's also becoming trickier to determine when and where such a common term can be employed.
Dr. Alloway went on to say:
[The discovery] more or less coincided with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and archaeologists involved just informally named it the hobbit. From there on in it’s been widely used in the scientific community to describe Homo floresiensis.
What do you think, Tolkien fans? How does one reconcile allowing common usage of Tolkien terms while still keeping certain parties from abusing that privilege for financial gain?