Tolkien Like a Pirate Day

You know how sometimes you’re reading and you stumble across a piece of information that seems relevant to wider issues but in a weird sort of way? That’s what happened to me today. Because in a world where Big Media is trying to clamp down on the internet, where digital piracy and the inability of music companies to adapt to new technologies are crashing into each other, where things like copyright and DRM and freedom of information are hot button issues… Well, did you know that the reason The Lord of the Rings got so big was because it was once pirated?

Effectively, while it had done pretty well in the UK, Rings hadn’t officially been published in the States. Thanks to America’s Byzantine laws ruling it to be in the public domain for some complicated reason, a publishing company called Ace Books decided in 1965 to release a US edition without paying royalties to Tolkien or his publishers. Fantasy in the US was undergoing something of a comeback amongst hippies and students, and Rings caught that zeitgeist; ‘Frodo Lives!‘ became a counterculteral slogan, and because Tolkien was slow to write the necessary amendments that would allow him to publish in the States, the only way of getting hold of the book was the pirated version. Well, at least until Ballantine got their official version out six months later in December 1965.

This is not an endorsement of piracy, of course, because Tokien wrote the thing and he wasn’t happy at getting screwed over – when the authorised US edition was released he wrote a cover blurb asking fans to only purchase the official version. This then lead to a grass-roots protest amongst fans, leading to Ace Books withdrawing their edition and paying Tolkien royalties. The Ballantine edition became the only one officially available, and the rest is pop culture history.

So what does this mean for the current debates over digital piracy, DRM, copyright and everything else? To be honest, I don’t know, smarter people than me can try and answer those questions. It’s just interesting to see the parallels – the Ace Books edition may have been hitting Tolkien in the pocket, but it helped introduce him to a wider audience – an audience who then went on to side with him when it came to buying the official versions. And did the controversy do more to publicise the book than a bog standard marketing campaign? Some authors, like Cory Doctorow, give away free ebooks of their work, and it seems to work for them… But is this the case for every author? I’d like to be able to offer some concrete answers, but the issue just seems to get bigger and more complex the more you look at it; the road goes ever on and on…

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