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J.R.R. Tolkien – Paperbacks and Copyright

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Almost every year, in the fall, I find myself picking up The Lord of the Rings and re-reading parts of it.  It has long been one of my favorite books.  However, my first introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing was not so positive.  When I was in the fifth grade, I had picked up The Hobbit at the school library.  I hastily put it back down.  It was not at all to my taste and was hard reading.  Two years later my little sister picked it up and seemed to find it an easy read.  Not to be beaten, I seized it when she was done and had another try.  I loved it.  Serendipitously another sister was reading The Lord of the Rings for a school project – as she finished a volume I picked it up, enthralled by story.

The Hobbit was in a library binding but I have a clear recollection of the covers of the paperback edition of The Lord of Rings.  This 1973 paperback edition was published by Ballantine and featured drawings by J.R.R. Tolkien on the covers: Hobbiton-acrosss-the Water, Fanghorn Forest and Barad Dur respectively.  This edition also carried an appeal to readers to respect living authors and not buy an unauthorized version of this title.  This curious notice referred to the controversy which had erupted in 1965 when The Lord of the Rings, which was first published in the 1950s, had been published in paperback for the first time by Ace Paperbacks.  This U.S. science fiction publisher believed that the copyright on the work had expired and in the United States the work was in the public domain.

The tale of copyright law in the 1950s is a tangled one and illustrates some of the complexities in the U.S. copyright system.  Some of the issues in play for determining the copyright status of The Lord of the Rings in 1965, would involve a review of the U.S. 1891 copyright law (26 Stat. 1106) and a subsequent Presidential Proclamation which extended copyright benefits to citizens of certain nations; the 1909 U.S. copyright law (35 Stat. 1075); and a consideration as to who had manufactured copies of the works in the United States; and the possible effect of the Universal Copyright Convention on the 1909 U.S. copyright law.

In March 1891, the United States Congress passed a law titled “An Act to amend title sixty, chapter three of the Revised Statutes of the United States, relating to copyrights,” (26 Stat. 1110).  This law amended and revised the copyright law which had been consolidated in the 1873-74 Revised Statutes.  Section 4953 of the Revised Statutes set the term for copyright at 28 years.  This law also provided an extension of copyright for an additional 14 years in section 4954.  The 1891 law included a provision to apply U.S. copyright law to citizens of a foreign country if that country provided U.S. citizens the same copyright protection as extended to its own citizens or if reciprocity was granted by the terms of an agreement between the United States and another country.  The determination of these considerations was left to the president.  On July 1, 1891 President Harrison issued a proclamation which declared: “Whereas satisfactory official assurances have been given that in Belgium, France, Great Britain and the British possessions, and Switzerland the law permits to citizens of the United States the benefit of copyright on substantially the same basis as to the citizens of those countries” and extended the copyright protection available to U.S. citizens to citizens of these countries.

The 1909 copyright law amended existing copyright law.  This law contained several provisions which related to “alien” authors or works which were first published in another country.  Section 8(a) of this law offered “reciprocity in the granting of copyright” between countries by means of a treaty or agreement.  On the other hand, section 15 of this law included manufacturing provisions which stated “That of the printed book or periodical … the text of all copies accorded protection under this Act, … shall be printed from type set within the limits of the United States …”  This section allowed for certain exceptions: “they shall not apply to … books published abroad in the English language seeking ad interim protection under this Act.”

Approximately 45 years later, in the same time frame The Lord of the Rings trilogy was being published in the United Kingdom and the United States, the U.S. was engaged in negotiating the Universal Copyright Convention.  Article II, section 1 of this convention states: “Published works of nationals of any Contracting State and works first published in that State shall enjoy in each other Contracting State the same protection as that other State accords to works of its nationals first published in its own territory.”  Both the U.S. and the UK ratified this convention but at different times.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Ace Books believed the American edition of The Lord of the Rings was not protected by copyright, and published a paperback edition of the work.  Tolkien and his publishers vigorously protested and Ballantine issued the first authorized paperback edition.  Tolkien had in fact been against a paperback edition of this work but came around when faced with the loss of copyright protection and royalties.

I am glad the book was published in paperback – otherwise I think I would have been much less likely to have encountered it.  I also enjoyed the movies made by Peter Jackson even though I did not always agree with his interpretation.  I was thrilled to discover that my colleague from New Zealand, Kelly, had been an extra in one of the films!

Obverse of title page for The Fellowship of the Ring / photograph taken by Donna Sokol
Obverse of title page for The Fellowship of the Ring / photograph taken by Donna Sokol

Comments (2)

  1. Great post!

  2. Do you know if the original Hobbit design is in the public domain? The original cover? It was publish by George Allen & Unwin who were then acquired it appears… I am not sure.

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