When a David vs Goliath battle is waged in real life, seldom do the Davids win. Yet, in all these battles, what remains constant is the Davids’ determination that rivals the might of the Goliaths. Demetrious Polychron did the exact same thing, except his Goliaths were Amazon Studios and the Tolkien Estate. Their issue? A fanfiction claiming copyright infringement by a nearly billion-dollar web series.
Polychron is the author of The Fellowship of the King, a self-claimed sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings. He claims it is a “pitch-perfect” sequel to the decades-old title, that enjoys a cult following nearly eighty years since its publication. His disappointment is only natural when he learnt that Amazon Studio’s Rings of Power seemed like a copy of his work. Feeling worthy of compensation, he sued the studio and the Tolkien Estate for copyright infringement. Polychron wanted to eat his cake after having it too, claiming $250 million as compensation.
Part two of this story entails more drama. The inspiration turns hostile, as the Tolkien estate named Polychron in a copyright infringement lawsuit of its own. Deeming Polychron’s allegations to be “frivolous”, the US court dismissed his petition way back in August. He was also brought down from his high horse when the Tolkien Estate’s suit was also ruled against him. He is now obliged to destroy all existing physical and digital copies of his books, with more damages to be compensated by him. Polychron is now also to stop all distribution of this series, and is to pay $134,637 as lawyers’ fees to the plaintiffs. Which of these delivered the hardest blow to him, we will perhaps never know.
Fans drawing inspiration from their idols is nothing new. They use this inspiration to create all kinds of fan-art, which now includes the hotcake-selling fanfiction genre. Some fan works have become so popular, that they become bestsellers even after being formally published. For example, the Jamie Dornan-Dakota Johnson starrer Fifty Shades of Grey, was actually a fanfiction inspired from the Twilight series. Not only does it enjoy a mad popularity online, it went on to be on bestseller racks for a long time. If that success wasn’t enough, there is a three-part film adaptation of it as well, also equally famous as its literary counterpart. Another example would be the After series. Its fanfiction version was based on a shunned-upon version of a punk Harry Styles (Yes, this was a trope). Although its film adaptations are nowhere near as good as Fifty Shades, the book series made some serious money. Anna Todd went from being a fanfic writer on Wattpad to a bestselling author today.
Publishers have realized the power of this goldmine of talent, and are always on the lookout for more of these surefire hits. But while this genre has given a platform for writers of impeccable talent to come forward, it also has its own grey areas. And copyright infringement, is its biggest one.
Nearly every major celebrity, movie and book franchise has their own ‘fandom’. These communities possess a good number of creative talents amongst them. The majority of them are digital artists and writers, mostly sharing their work online. Fanfiction in particular, has given rise to digital platforms specifically meant for this genre, like Wattpad and AO3. No laws are broken in an attempt to share one’s talent by basing their work on these artists or movie/book titles. The issue arises when these fan works are shared with the intent of generating money, in the guise of freedom of expression.
This is the exact scenario in Polychron’s case. There’s no question about his love for the Lord of The Rings series. That is evident in the fact he had planned six more installations to this book. He even went to the lengths of asking for an approval for his book from Simon Tolkien, J.R.R Tolkien’s grandson. Not having a formal authorization to mint money off of someone else’s work did not deter Polychron. He had also formally wanted to work with the Tolkien Estate, quite eagerly. After the Estate refused any offers of collaborations, Polychron simply sent over a copy of his now copyrighted book. Whether this action falls under good nature or pure, outrageous stupidity, is still debatable.
The Rings of Power on the other hand, is a critical and commercially acclaimed series from Amazon Studios. A few eyebrows must’ve been raised at the organization upon the knowledge of the lawsuit. A man who wrote a fanfiction is telling an original content maker that it stole from his work. It truly is a wonder why Polychron was miffed that the series seemed similar to his work. Both the Rings of Power and the now disgraced Fellowship of the King are sourced from the exact same material. The two titles feature a character named Elanor (in completely different renditions), as mentioned in Polychron’s lawsuit.
Moral of the story, therefore, is not to be daft like Polychron. Amazon Studios used the same creative freedom that Polychron sought after in his lawsuit, except with full authorization of the Tolkien Estate. Polychron went on to build a whole career out of things that were not his to begin with. This puts everyone engaged in fanfiction and fanart, who truly work out of passion for the art form, in jeopardy. Legalities regarding copyright are very context-dependent, and in Demetrious Polychron’s case, it was clear to everyone except him who was in the wrong.