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


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  1. icon
    G Thompson (profile), 26 Oct 2012 @ 10:28pm

    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"

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