Scientist Refused Permission To Call Hominids 'Hobbits', Even Though Word First Used In Print In 1895 — And Not By Tolkien

from the always-check-your-sources dept

Techdirt has written before about the aggressive enforcement habits of the Tolkien estate, once in connection with the name “Tolkien“, and once regarding the word “Hobbit“. Looks like they’re at it again, down in New Zealand:

Victoria University’s Brent Alloway has organised a free public lecture on Homo floresiensis, a species closely related to humans which lived on Flores Island, but has been told he is not allowed to call the free public lecture ‘The Other Hobbit’.

The volcanologist wrote to the estate of Hobbit author JRR Tolkein about the event on December 1 as a courtesy, but was told by Wellington lawyers AJ Park representing the estate that he was not allowed to use the word.

That’s pretty ridiculous from many viewpoints. First, this is a free public lecture from a scientist — not a commercial use of any kind. Secondly, the hominids in question have been called “hobbits” by the scientific community almost since their discovery in 2004, so this is a very well-established usage. Finally — and most interestingly — over on Twitter, Chris Puttick pointed out that Tolkien wasn’t even the first to use the term “hobbit” in this sense:

The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d.1859), printed in volume 2 of “The Denham Tracts” [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham’s scattered publications. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland.

Since the book appeared in 1895, and Denham died in 1859, that would seem to place all of its text – and hence the creature known as a “hobbit” – in the public domain. I wonder what the Tolkien Estate will say to that?

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Comments on “Scientist Refused Permission To Call Hominids 'Hobbits', Even Though Word First Used In Print In 1895 — And Not By Tolkien”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What is this, Hobbit Day?


You were told bits of it were from Beowulf, which seems reasonable enough seeing as how both stories end with freaking dragons sitting on piles of gold. There are probably hundreds of other themes and influences.

Maybe that’s why you have as problem with the other users of this site? You never actually read what people write, you skim it and alter words in your head…

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: What is this, Hobbit Day?

We’re talking about the cultural tropes of heros and epics here. There are throughlines not just to Beowulf, but to things much much older like Homer’s epics and the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a real shame that, in your desire to bicker about culture, you have completely failed to grasp the rich, moving, aeon-spanning oneness of it all, and are missing out on the profound sense of beauty that understanding leads to the world and human existence.

Kate Ebneter says:

Re: Re:

It’s highly unlikely that Tolkien got “hobbit” from the Denham Tracts. There are tons of English folklore terms beginning with “hob” (the best known of which is doubtless “hobgoblin”), so it is not at all surprising that the word would appear in a collection of such names, whether Tolkien had read the book or not. (There is no evidence that he did so.)

I’m actually surprised that this involves the Estate, by the way; I would expect it to involve Tolkien Enterprises, which holds the trademarks and which is much more aggressive than the Estate in going after alleged infringers.

AB says:

I hereby claim all rights on the word ‘the’ so nobody better use it without the explicit permission of me or my estate!

It’s fun to learn that apparently neither prior use nor even creative responsibility have any actual bearing on copyright claims. Good thing nobody would ever use such laws in ways they were not intended – that is what the mafiaa keep assuring us, right?

J.R.R. Tolkien says:

Sue the bastards

Hi, I’m dead. I obviously didn’t invent the word “hobbit” nor did I invent things like elves, trolls, or dwarfs. Would the family of Michael Aislabie Denham please sue the living shit out of my relatives who are still sucking my corpse dry. Get out and write your own books, you freeloaders!

J.R.R. Tolkien

Androgynous Cowherd says:

He should go ahead and use the name anyway. If they sue for trademark infringement, it should be easy to get it speedily dismissed as not a “use in commerce”. If they have the amazing chutzpah to sue for copyright infringement, the fact that it’s just one word kills the claim dead, dead, dead with “de minimis” and the word’s pre-dating Tolkien does likewise — another speedy dismissal.

And when the claim is so obviously bogus on its face that it can be dismissed so fast the plaintiff’s head spins, there’s a good chance of being able to assert that the suit was filed in bad faith and get a judgment that the plaintiff has to pay your legal fees, too.

(Note though: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.)

G Thompson (profile) says:

Whether the word hobbit was or wasn’t invented by Tolkien is irrelevant here since there is no case not because of prior usage but because the usage of the word hobbit to describe these hominids HAS been in wide usage by not just the scientific community but by the NZ, Australian and World Wide press since 2004 (and actually a bit before).

They have NEVER made a legal threat or tried to stop the word being used in regards to these hominids since then and all of a sudden they do. This then leads them to have no standing due to their acquiescence of the usage (Though it’s noteworthy they would have no standing anyway under trademark law in Australia either.. no dilution here) and therefore the doctrine of laches comes into play absolutely.

This is a New Zealand law firm acting on directions of an American client trying to tell an Australian what they can and cannot do.

Hopefully (after a few emails I will send) a Trademark solicitor/barrister will contact Mr Alloway and present to him options most likely starting with a letter in the gist of “thankyou for your letter , we regret to inform you we are not intimidated due to xxx reasons and kindly now ask you to piss off”

Charlie says:

Probably a dick advertising move

Glyn, you’ve probably been had.

This move gives lots of free advertising world wide (worth millions) due to the net Streisand effect keeping Hobitt (and all the associated products) top-of-mind at almost no cost.

Don’t be manipulated like that – fight back so that moves such as this move costs them much more than it benefits them. They deserve nothing less.

Ninja (profile) says:

While he has the right to use the word for all the reasons mentioned, it’s worth noting that this could result in a lawsuit and regardless of how wrong the Tolkien estate is it will be all sorts of distress for the scientist including but not limited to the financial angle. It’s a shame.

While I do think there could be sane copyright rules to help protect works from commercial exploitation this is precisely one of the cases that makes me think we’d be better off if we abolished copyright entirely.

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