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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Filed Under: copyright, free speech, hobbits, science, tolkien

Reader Comments

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  1. identicon
    Kate Ebneter, 26 Oct 2012 @ 1:43pm


    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.

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