Legal copyright expires for Lord of the Rings books but only in New Zealand, lawyer says

This week saw copyright expire on early versions of iconic characters, like Mickey Mouse and Tigger. 

January 1 was 'Public Domain Day', when icons like Mickey lost their copyright protection, allowing horror-themed knockoffs to enter production. 

And according to one legal expert, arguably the greatest fantasy story ever told has now joined those two characters in the public domain - but only in New Zealand. 

Lord of the Rings' iconic cast of characters is about to lose the same protection, Arran Hunt, a partner at the legal firm McVeagh Fleming, told Newshub.

"Tolkien passed away in 1973, which means its 50 calendar years since the death which would have been the end of 2023. So [on] 1 January 2024, Tolkien's work entered the public domain," Hunt said. 

That means Sir Peter Jackson, the Lord of Tolkien movies, could soon be joined by other Kiwi creatives. 

The big difference is that their versions will only be able to be made and distributed in Aotearoa, as Tolkien's work is still covered by copyright in other countries. 

"It means the original text is now free to use for anyone in New Zealand how they see fit. It doesn't mean you have a carte blanche right to use all of his characters in any way you want to, because there are still trademarks that may be factors," Hunt explained. 

"But the wording itself, the characters he created, and the environment he made are free to use." 

However, before you make your own movie, only the original book would be covered by public domain - not the films or TV show. 

"People will want to be very cautious with how they use it. They don't want to be seen as emulating or passing off the companies that made the movies or the TV series," Hunt told Newshub. 

"Be very, very careful, go see a good lawyer. Definitely don't pick fights with Amazon." 

Arran Hunt, partner at law firm McVeagh Fleming, says the Lord of the Rings' copright expired since it's been 50 calendar years since Tolkien died.
Arran Hunt, partner at law firm McVeagh Fleming, says the Lord of the Rings' copright expired since it's been 50 calendar years since Tolkien died. Photo credit: Newshub.

Rob Garrett, acting manager at the Intellectual Property Office (IPONZ), noted that just because a copyright expires, it doesn't mean the work will enter the public domain. 

"Copyright for different types of 'works' last for different lengths of time," he told Newshub. "Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works copyright protection lasts for 50 years after the author dies, even if the copyright is no longer owned by the author. 

"However, if a literary work has been republished then the new publisher will own copyright over the typographical layout of that edition (even though the content may be reproduced). 

"It is also important to note that the copyright work may be the subject of a licence agreement, or some other commercial agreement and those agreements may be a barrier to the work entering the public domain. 

"We confirm that copyright protection will extend to 70 years once Free Trade Agreements are ratified and brought into force.  

"The expiration of Copyright protection does not automatically mean that a work has entered the public domain." 

Garrett suggested checking whether the work has indeed been republished. 

"We advise you to contact those dealing with the late author's estate to establish what copyright or other legal protections may be in place." 

Film critic Jordan Tini believes certain parts of the country could now go full hobbit. 

"Having that kind of copyright law support us within that public domain space would be a win, and I wouldn't be surprised if Matamata just fully rebrands itself to Hobbitville," Tini told Newshub. 

So at least here at home, there might no longer be one version of Lord of the Rings to rule them all.