Tolkien family's 'nasty' efforts to stop you from reading new bio

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Feb 21, 2013, 10:52 AM EST

Wanna read a new edition of the very first biography on Lord of the Rings creator J. R. R. Tolkien, for free? Too bad.

According to Daniel Grotta, who first authored J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth back in 1976, we were about to get an updated e-book edition of his classic work absolutely gratis, but now we'll never see it. Why? The powerful legal resources wielded by the Tolkien family, of course.

In a new post on his blog, Grotta said he's now abandoned ever putting out a new edition of the work, even though the copyright reverted back to him when the book went out of print after 36 years. Since he had the copyright, Grotta planned to update and release the book free as a promotion for his new independent publishing house, but he's been scared off the idea thanks to the Tolkien family's long history of animosity toward him, an animosity that apparently goes back to the days when he was researching his book.

"Back in 1975, as part of my original research, I had as a matter of course contacted the Tolkien family," Grotta wrote. "I had hoped to interview them about their famous father, as well as seek access to Tolkien’s private papers and letters. What I didn’t know at the time was that Christopher Tolkien had contracted with Humphrey Carpenter to write an “official” biography, and he wanted to actively discourage and frustrate all other would-be biographers from the field. Therefore he responded to my first request with a curt, nasty letter suggesting that I abandon the project. A follow-up letter that I sent elicited an even nastier, threatening letter that informed me that I would have no success in my research, and I could expect no cooperation from the family. What’s more, he informed me that none of Tolkien’s personal and academic associates would give me even the time of day. Indeed, as I later discovered while in Oxford, most of Tolkien’s close associates had been specifically asked by Christopher Tolkien not to talk to me. Fortunately, enough of his old friends thought that was contrary to their sense of academic freedom and openness, and agreed to be interviewed at length."

Grotta found other ways around Christopher Tolkien's attempts to shut him down, such as quoting from an American edition of The Lord of the Rings that had gone uncopyrighted due to an importing error, and quoting from other academic works about Tolkien with the permission of the writers. The book came out anyway, which "incensed" Christopher Tolkien and even prompted Tolkien's British publisher, Allen & Unwin, to send Grotta's publisher, Running Press, a few letters threatening legal action (which they never followed through with).

So, if the book managed to get out back then, why can't it today? Apparently that technically uncopyrighted American version of Rings has since been copyrighted by a retroactive law, so Grotta can no longer quote from it without permission. All attempts he's made to get permission to quote from the work have gone unanswered, and though he's been told by lawyers that he's working in a "grey area" in terms of possible copyright violation, he just doesn't want to risk tangling with the Tolkien family. After all, it wouldn't be the first time they've filed a high-profile lawsuit over the Lord of the Rings franchise.

"We simply don’t have the resources that the Tolkien family and their publishers have," Grotta said. "Responding to any suit from them, whether sound or not, would involve hiring a lawyer and appearing in whatever court has jurisdiction. (With a book that would be distributed over the Internet, that could be in any state, including faraway Alaska and Hawaii). Even if we won, the costs could bankrupt us."

So, while copies of Grotta's original work are still floating around for you to buy secondhand, a new edition isn't coming.