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Thread: Copyright questions--what are the limitations?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW vgunn's Avatar
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    Copyright questions--what are the limitations?

    The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, is a series fantasy novels involving John (J.R.R. Tolkien), Charles (Charles Williams), and Jack (C.S. Lewis).

    What are the limitations of a work like this?

    Could for instance John, Charles, and Jack go to Narnia?

    Could you take an outside character (one of your own making) and have him/her somehow find their way into Middle-earth?

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW srgalactica's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by vgunn View Post
    The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, is a series fantasy novels involving John (J.R.R. Tolkien), Charles (Charles Williams), and Jack (C.S. Lewis).

    What are the limitations of a work like this?

    Could for instance John, Charles, and Jack go to Narnia?

    Could you take an outside character (one of your own making) and have him/her somehow find their way into Middle-earth?
    The world of Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien, so no, you couldn't publish a work like that.

    No one is stopping you from writing it, though. It just wouldn't be publishable.



  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW vgunn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by srgalactica View Post
    The world of Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien, so no, you couldn't publish a work like that.

    No one is stopping you from writing it, though. It just wouldn't be publishable.
    So how does the author get by using Tolkien (or Lewis, Williams) as a character?

  4. #4
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    But, of course, middle earth is such a part of our pop culture that you can take bits of it, change some names, and use this as a 'referential homage'

    for an example of this, take the magicians, by lev grossman: they pretty much go to Narnia, you know the place is a reference to Narnia, but at the same time it has enough different details that it's a place on its own.

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    coffee and pistols at dawn KateJJ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by vgunn View Post
    So how does the author get by using Tolkien (or Lewis, Williams) as a character?
    Does he specifically call them "Tolkien", "Lewis", etcetera or are they just John, Jack and Charles, who happen to be Oxford dons in the 1940s who like writing fantasy stories?

    And you can use real people in your stories. Otherwise Harry Turtledove and other writers of alternate history would be out of luck. It helps to pick people who are very dead, and so are all their friends and relatives. You can't exactly copyright yourself. If someone put me in a book and I didn't like it I might be able to sue them but even that's kind of tricky.
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    Middle Earth is from Norse myth, so you can use it. Narnia might be more of a problem, but there are plenty of places in myth that you could use.

    As far as basing characters on actual people, that has been done commonly. You might want to talk wit an attorney about how that might work, and how you would have to proceed to avoid being sued. But actual, historical, persons can be used in fiction, and there are no problems.

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    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    You can use a well-known historical figure as a fictional character pretty much to your heart's content (at least under US law). But the characters they created, their imagined settings, and the stuff they wrote are quite likely still covered by copyright. There are exceptions for use in parody, but that's a pretty limited window.

    Note that in the US even if a particular story becomes public domain, the characters may not. They have a different, and much longer protection. For instance Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice is in the public domain. You can re-print it, make up new stories about Lizzie & Mr. Darcy, add zombies, whatever...

    A lot of Robert E Howard's Conan stories are in the public domain, you can re-print them. But the character is a separate property from the stories. Don't even try to publish your own Conan story, the rights-owners are zealous in defense.

    As for Middle Earth, and Lord of the Rings, it is not public domain at all as far as I know. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. If you must, consult a lawyer. Shakespeare can't sue you, the Walt Disney Corporation can and will.

    So before you borrow another author's work as inspiration, do your due diligence and make sure it is truly and completely in the public domain, or you may find yourself the object of take-down notices, law suits, not to mention the unpleasant reputation of plagiarism.
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    Fire and Blood J.W. Alden's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by King Neptune View Post
    Middle Earth is from Norse myth, so you can use it.
    Well, you might get away with calling it Middle-earth, but if you populate it with Orcs and Hobbits and take your characters to Rivendell and Minas Tirith, me thinks the Tolkien estate will argue you're not exactly talking about Midgard.
    Last edited by J.W. Alden; 02-01-2013 at 01:31 AM.
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    practical experience, FTW vgunn's Avatar
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    This is not something I'm planning. Just thought about it after picking up the book Here, There Be Dragons. I've seen much in the way of alternative fiction and use of historical figures, however never really thought about the copyright implications.

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    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    LoTR & Copyright

    Quote Originally Posted by J.W. Alden View Post
    Well, you might get away with calling it Middle-earth, but if you populate it with Orcs and Hobbits and take your characters to Rivendell and Minas Tirith, me thinks the Tolkien estate will argue you're not exactly talking about Midgard.
    JRRT got a lesson in copyright the hard way. Don Wollheim spotted a loophole in US law that gave him a basis to print LoTR as if it were public domain. It had something to do with the format of the books and their provenance IIRC.

    Anyway, Wollheim issued LoTR as paperbacks from Ace without so much as a by-your-leave from JRRT or his publisher. Hilarity ensued. Ballantine rushed out their paperback editions and the Ace editions were quietly withdrawn. If you look in the back of the Ballantine, there's a note from JRRT requesting folks to show some courtesy and buy the authorized edition.

    I wouldn't count on that trick working a second time though.
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    chronically underwhelmed Fantasmac's Avatar
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    The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica is a good example of the difference between fair use and fanfiction (or not violating vs. violating copyright law).

    Using characters or locations from a copyrighted work (like Frodo or Narnia) in your own story is NOT okay and would result in an unpublishable novel. This is fanfiction. It only gets published if the serial numbers are filed off (names, places, identifiable details changed).

    In the above case, the author took public figures (Tolkien, Lewis, Williams) and based characters on them. He created a world in which these authors went on an original fantasy adventure that led to them writing real world books, which I believe is more implied than actually stated. This is a fictionalized depiction of real public figures, which is not against the law. If this were illegal, Saturday Night Live wouldn't exist. The characters don't go to Narnia or Middle-Earth. You can absolutely reference things in novels that actually exist, like people and books.

    Basically I could publish a book in which a boy reads The Chronicles of Narnia or meets CS Lewis. I could NOT publish a book in which a boy finds a portal in his bedroom that takes him to Narnia.
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    Fire and Blood J.W. Alden's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Hardy View Post
    JRRT got a lesson in copyright the hard way. Don Wollheim spotted a loophole in US law that gave him a basis to print LoTR as if it were public domain. It had something to do with the format of the books and their provenance IIRC.
    The way I heard it, Tolkien's American publisher for the hardcovers hadn't protected the paperback version under law (whatever that means--no idea how copyright law worked back then). Wollheim asked Tolkien if he could publish the paperbacks and Tolkien refused because he didn't like the format, but Don wen't ahead and did it anyway after researching the law. The supposed irony is that this lead to the massive popularity of LOTR in the States, and the subsequent Fantasy explosion. But I have no idea if any of that's true, tbh.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Hardy View Post
    I wouldn't count on that trick working a second time though.
    Not only will it not work a second time, but the Tolkien estate takes their copyrights and trademarks pretty seriously. They collect licensing fees for the use Orcs and Hobbits in other fantasy properties (though their diligence waxes and wanes, supposedly). That's why some role-playing games and what have you will call them Ogres and Halflings when it's obviously meant to evoke Tolkien's races, so they don't have to license the use.
    Last edited by J.W. Alden; 02-01-2013 at 02:03 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by J.W. Alden View Post
    Well, you might get away with calling it Middle-earth, but if you populate it with Orcs and Hobbits and take your characters to Rivendell and Minas Tirith, me thinks the Tolkien estate will argue you're not exactly talking about Midgard.
    One would expect to find elves, dwarves, humans, wizards, etc. in Middle Earth. Particular place names can be problems, but one can name towns after any actual or mythological place, so there is no real problem with names. You could even name a character Frodo, because that was a reasonably common Norse name.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by J.W. Alden View Post
    The way I heard it, Tolkien's American publisher for the hardcovers hadn't protected the paperback version under law (whatever that means--no idea how copyright law worked back then). Wollheim asked Tolkien if he could publish the paperbacks and Tolkien refused because he didn't like the format, but Don wen't ahead and did it anyway after researching the law. The supposed irony is that this lead to the massive popularity of LOTR in the States, and the subsequent Fantasy explosion. But I have no idea if any of that's true, tbh.
    I recall some business about the hardback being printed in the UK, but bound in the US. Somehow this put LoTR in a copyright limbo, at least in Wollheim's view.

    Wollheim had excellent taste in books, DAW books make up a pretty thick slice of my book collection.
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    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by King Neptune View Post
    One would expect to find elves, dwarves, humans, wizards, etc. in Middle Earth. Particular place names can be problems, but one can name towns after any actual or mythological place, so there is no real problem with names. You could even name a character Frodo, because that was a reasonably common Norse name.
    This is like saying anthrpomorphizing is common, so if I write a book about mice who talk and run around in clothes that's cool (which it is), and btw, alliteration is also common and the name Mickey is a common name from the 50s, so if I name my mouse Mickey and set him there and have him in suspendered pants, also common in the 50s I'm fine. You can explain it that way to the parade of Disney lawyers who'd be on my ass, but you'd lose. You can't just say 'well, it's Mickey Mouse but not that Mickey Mouse because it's a common name even though it's the same setup,' or 'it's Middle Earth with elves and a dwarf named Frodo because that's a common name but it's not THAT Middle Earth or Frodo - coincidence!'

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    volitare nequeo AW Moderator veinglory's Avatar
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    Re: OP's question. You can't copyright a real person, so copyright is not an issue. The only limitations might be something like defamation (libel).

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    Trademark may also come into play. I don't know whether the worlds or characters in the works of Tolkien and Lewis have any form of trademark protection, but plenty of popular novel series most certainly do (Harry Potter, Tarzan, to mention a couple of famous ones).

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    volitare nequeo AW Moderator veinglory's Avatar
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    We are talking, it seems, about the actual person who is the author. They can't be trademarked either.

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    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. AW Moderator Torgo's Avatar
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    Using real people in fictional books is only a problem if you might libel or defame them - but if they're dead, that problem is almost completely removed. I say almost completely because as far as I'm aware there are some circs where there may be grounds for action - if, for example, you allege some bad behaviour on the part of the deceased person which would encompass living people (say, his family). I would be a bit leery of libelling Tolkien, despite his death, as his estate is a big business which hasn't appeared shy about protecting its interests in court.

    You can't take those characters and plonk them in Narnia or Tolkien's Middle-Earth without express permission from the holders of Lewis's and Tolkien's copyrights. You can, as Lev Grossman did, create a world which is strongly reminiscent of Narnia, but doesn't actually share anything specific with Lewis.

    I wouldn't write a book for publication which takes place in a place called Middle Earth and includes elves and dwarves (especially if spelt like that) and a character called Frodo. Whether or not you could defend it legally, I don't know, but why not just change the names? It's easy enough to write a non-infringing Tolkien ripoff (just ask Terry Brooks, for example.)

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    pretending to be awake onesecondglance's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by King Neptune View Post
    Middle Earth is from Norse myth, so you can use it.
    It's Tolkien's creation, inspired by Norse and Scandinavian and Saxon and a lot of other myths, so no, you can't just use it.

    GRRM's world is heavily influenced by the War of the Roses, but you can't just steam in there and use that either.
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    Formerly Phantom of Krankor. AW Moderator Torgo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by onesecondglance View Post
    It's Tolkien's creation, inspired by Norse and Scandinavian and Saxon and a lot of other myths, so no, you can't just use it.

    GRRM's world is heavily influenced by the War of the Roses, but you can't just steam in there and use that either.
    Also, there are about a bazillion live registered trademarks for "middle-earth" - including, intriguingly, TMs for smoking paraphernalia, beverages, hand soap and amusement parks, all registered to the Saul Zaentz company. Which suggests to me that we may be riding the barrel-flume, smoking Old Took's best pipeweed and smelling like an elf, at a Hobbit-themed attraction somewhere before long.

    I would strongly recommend that nobody uses 'Middle-Earth' to sell anything any time soon. If you want to do something that riffs of Norse myth, call it 'Midgard' or something.

  22. #22
    pretending to be awake onesecondglance's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Torgo View Post
    Which suggests to me that we may be riding the barrel-flume, smoking Old Took's best pipeweed and smelling like an elf
    All of which are now euphemisms you are free to use as you wish.

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  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by onesecondglance View Post
    All of which are now euphemisms you are free to use as you wish.

    "Man, my head hurts. I was riding the barrel-flume so hard last night."
    "Yeah, me too. But dude, I came out smellin' like an elf. Boo-yah!"
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  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW
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    I think it annoys me more when writers use real people but give them fake names than when they just use real people. There's a Greg Egan story that's pretty obviously about CS Lewis and Alan Turing, but he gives them different names and even gives Narnia a different name. It irritates me every time I see it.

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