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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Polychron v. Bezos

District court grants defendants’ motion to dismiss copyright claim, finding that author of unauthorized “sequel” to copyrighted book did not plausibly state claim against author of original work and those who created lawful derivative works.

In this case arising from the Amazon television series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, plaintiff Demetrious Polychron filed a copyright infringement suit against two groups of defendants: those associated with the author of the Lord of the Rings book series, J.R.R. Tolkien, and those associated with Amazon Studios. Polychron had published several books, including the fan-fiction novels titled The Fellowship of the King and The Two Trees, both based on The Lord of the Rings. In 2017, Polychron registered The Fellowship of the King with the U.S. Copyright Office and sent a letter to defendant Simon Tolkien, the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, seeking Simon Tolkien’s support of his intended sequel to the Lord of the Rings stories. Simon Tolkien did not respond. Then, in November 2019, Polychron sought a license from the Tolkien defendants to publish a seven-book sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. The Tolkien Trust denied Polychron’s request. One month later, Polychron personally delivered a copy of his manuscript to Simon Tolkien’s residence. When defendant Amazon released the television series The Rings of Power, Polychron claimed that Amazon and the Tolkien Estate used his manuscript to create the new series. The defendants filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

The court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that Polychron’s work, regardless of whether it is registered, is an unauthorized derivative work based on the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the characters “lifted lock, stock and barrel” from the original works, and therefore not subject to copyright protection. The court reasoned that the case was analogous to Anderson v. Stallone, where the district court concluded that it did not need to determine if there were substantial similarities between a writer’s unauthorized Rocky IV script and the later-produced film Rocky IV because it used the same characters, themes and ideas created for the prior Rocky films.

Even if Polychron’s manuscript were not an unauthorized derivative work, the court also held Polychron did not plausibly plead that his novels and the Amazon series were substantially similar after filtering out all unprotectable elements. For example, the newly created characters, plot points and settings in Polychron’s book did not appear in The Rings of Power.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Brandon Zamudio