Is the word "Hobbit" in the public domain yet?
May 6, 2014 7:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about titles for a new project and was wondering about the word "Hobbit." I'm not familiar with copyright law here but isn't it that after a certain amount of years the work - and everything in it - goes to the public domain? Are the works of JRR Tolkien there yet?
posted by rileyray3000 to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
According to Wikipedia, there's some evidence the word was in use prior to Tolkien.

That said, that's not the hobbit hill I'd want to die on. I'd probably find another name, given the works are still under copyright.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:34 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tolkein is Not in PD, and if Saul Zaentz and the estate are diligent , they will be in copyright for many more years. Middle-earth Enterprises.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:34 AM on May 6, 2014

The second question is simple. No, JRR Tolkien's works are not in the public domain. The term Hobbit was coined by him. It is probably not in the public domain, however, if a word becomes common enough in usage it can be public domain. However, I recommend you change the creatures and brand them for yourself.

This site talks some about the specific issue, referring to "Public Domain Day" in 2013. If the US had not passed that extension, we would be seeing works published in 1937, such as the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, now entering the public domain.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:35 AM on May 6, 2014

Tolkein's work is not public domain, and in fact is some of the most heavily guarded and litigated intellectual property in the world. The Hobbit was published in 1937, but the last year of public domain in the US is 1922. You can't use the word "hobbit" in a commercial work; that's why a lot of games use "halfling."
posted by theodolite at 7:36 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

He died in 1973, so in most places where copyright extends X decades after the author's death, there's still a while to go. And that's not counting all of the scribblings from his archive published after his death, which get an extra bump from Christopher Tolkien's editorial contributions.

The word itself is a trademark of Middle-earth Enterprises, and trademarks don't pass into the public domain in the way that artistic works do.

For pretty much anything written in the middle of the 20th century by English-speaking authors who survived into the later decades of that century, the rule of thumb is that not only is it not public domain, it won't be public domain for a long time.
posted by holgate at 7:37 AM on May 6, 2014

Current status of U.S. copyright law (Wikipedia link to 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act) is life of the author plus 70 years. Tolkien died in 1973, so there's a ways to go before his stuff enters the public domain.

Single words can't really be copyrighted, though - see this pdf link of a circular from the US Copyright Office. They can be trademarked, however, and apparently the Tolkien estate has done so with the word "hobbit", so basically if you use it without their permission you may get sued. A quick Google search of "hobbit trademark" turns up a variety of fairly recent lawsuits concerning use of the word "hobbit."
posted by soundguy99 at 7:39 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

hence the D&D character class "halflings", I suppose
posted by thelonius at 7:47 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also worth noting is that (in the U.S., at least), trademarks need to be actively defended in order to maintain owner's rights, while copyright does not. In practice this tends to mean that trademark owners (and their lawyers) are actively looking for trademark violations, so use of the actual word "hobbit" may be more quickly noticed and acted upon than if you created a character that looked, acted, smelled, and tasted like a hobbit but wasn't actually called a hobbit.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2014

Yeah, it's trademarked for a number of different uses. You can search here.

From a quick search, I've found the following (all TM'd by The Saul Zaentz Company):

Fresh fruits; fresh vegetables; foodstuffs for animals; animal litter; bulbs for horticultural purposes; dried flowers; dried flower arrangements; fresh flowers; raw nuts; raw unprocessed popcorn

Arcade game machines; Arcade games; Arcade video game machines; Pinball games; Pinball machines

providing a website for the arrangement of travel and tours; organization and arrangement of excursions and sightseeing tours

Non-metal storage sheds

Play houses

On-line retail store services featuring video games, films, and pre-recorded DVDs, swords, jewelry, books, calendars, posters and other printed materials, mugs and cups, flags and banners, costumes and other types of clothing, bows and arrows, toys and games, smoking pipes and other smoking products.


Figures of cardboard

Pewter shot glasses, pewter goblets.

Costume shoe covers.

...and more (I stopped at the first page of search results).
posted by melissasaurus at 7:56 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

There was a legal case a few years ago centred around a pub in Southampton called The Hobbit that is probably worth reading about in this regard.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 8:26 AM on May 6, 2014

presumably metal storage sheds are trademarked for "uruk-hai"
posted by bendybendy at 9:13 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

But does 'the title of a project' qualify for either trademark or copyright? What sort of project? If it's something internal, how could Middle-earth Enterprises even know? Anyway, I thought that unlike content, titles weren't covered by copyright laws.
posted by Rash at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2014

Since "hobbit" is just a word, and not a work of literature, it, in and of itself, isn't covered by "copyright". It's covered by trademark, which is more something that has to be defended in court, and less something that is or is not public domain (the word "apple" is public domain, but just try naming your software company Apple and see what happens).

Both the Tolkein estate and the studio that makes the Hobbit movies are very interested in preserving their trademark on the word. It's not a hill I'd want to die on.

That said, if it's a creative project in its non-finalized form, sure, call it "Hobbit Creek" while you're working on it and think of a better title later, when this actually matters. It's not like anyone can see the filenames on your hard drive.
posted by Sara C. at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2014

They came after a local cafe as well.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:44 PM on May 6, 2014

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