The New Rights Aristocracy

by on August 7, 2009

Today’s news from Tinsel Town is that the heirs of J R R Tolkien and the charity they head, the Tolkien Trust, are seeking more than $220 million in “compensation” from New Line Cinema as a cut from the huge profits from the Lord of the Rings films. The family say have a right to this money because it was promised to them in the contract the author signed in 1969 with United Artists.

The moral, social and (at these sums) economic impact of all this seems rather remarkable. The author of the original work has been dead for almost 40 years. He received $250,000 for the film rights (perhaps about a $500,000 in today’s money). Yet society, and not least Tolkien’s children, sees nothing wrong with providing rewards to his heirs – heirs that had nothing to do with either the books or the films – in perpetuity.

Of course, this particular case is fuelled by contract (and I don’t know anything about the charity involved), but as copyright terms extend ever onward to infinity, will we see a new aristocracy arise from all this?  Those who through nothing but the accident of birth are born instantly into wealth for generations after a single individual of their blood line wrote a book, composed a song, or wrote a play. What is the reason for this? What does it serve other than greed?

The next time I undertake any contract work, I’ll try slipping in a clause that commits my client to paying me and my heirs an income after they’ve paid me a lump sum for the work. Just a few quid a month. Nothing too greedy. But in perpetuity, naturally. I wonder what they’ll say?


You could argue that copyright forms the basis for such contractual discussions (this will depend on who does the negotiations of course) but the fact is that this is contract law – which can rewrite and over-ride copyright law any which way. This can be a good thing like a CC licence or a bad thing – perhaps like this contract that gives money in perpetuity to JRR Tolkien’s great grandchildren +++ – who would then perhaps assign the rights to their next door neighbours. It will be interesting when governments start to apply competition and anti-trust law to the monopoly created by copyright and contract law.

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