Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Black Riders of the Internet

It is interesting how I have been on quite an internet journey in the last couple of days. First I am interested in 'what if?' history and then become interested in book art and its possibilities of visually expressing counter-factuals. Then working up some of those I begin looking for counter-factual maps across the internet and in turn this leads to maps of fantasy and imaginary places and in turn that leads to me finding out about how a group of lawyers are seeking to rein in the internet in a serious way.

Growing up, unlike the bulk of teenage boys that could read that I knew, I was never a fan of 'The Hobbit' or 'The Lord of the Rings'. I enjoyed writing fiction myself and seeing so many people rip off ideas from those books I thought that if I read them I would contaminate my own writing and other things I did at the time, such as playing role playing games (this was the 1980s when the most sophisticated computer games were rather blocky and teenage boys would spend hours in stuffy rooms describing gloomy castles and rolling to see if they were killed by orcs). The work of J.R.R. Tolkien has sort of been subsumed into mainstream fantasy culture anyway. Of course, he did not invent it all himself anyway. His elves and dwarfs (or dwarves as he called them) and dragons all come from traditional Western mythology; the rings in his books borrow from Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas and much of the politics of his books are analogies for Europe's battle with Nazi Germany's and then the Soviet Union's expanding influence in the world when he was writing ('The Lord of the Rings' was written between 1937-49 published 1954-5), with the reluctant help of the USA (i.e. the elves). He did invent the Orcs, but even their name comes from Orcus who was one of the Roman gods of the underworld, stemming from Etruscan myths and subsumed by Pluto. A lot comes from Norse and German myths, though tempered with Christianity though less overtly than by his fellow Oxford witer, C.S. Lewis, in his Narnia series.

Anyway, so 'The Lord of the Rings' has become globally successful. A movie in 1978 was a flop, but with technology having advanced a great deal to allow the fantastical scenes to be portrayed convincingly, the trilogy of films 2001-2003 made it globally successful and as with all movie franchises it sparked off loads of merchandising. The internet is littered with websites by fans, companies and other groups all with something to say about the stories and the films and the products. What I found out very quickly, though is that the lawyers of Tolkien's estate have been rampaging across the internet (very like the ghoulish Black Riders who remorselessly hunt down Frodo in 'The Lord of the Rings') threatening a score of internet sites with legal action unless they remove images of Middle Earth (Tolkien's setting for the stories, itself derived from Midgard in Norse myths). You can find a long list of websites closed down by these lawyers. They even threaten people who have drawn their own maps of Middle Earth and only permit them to restore them once they have paid for a licence.

I can accept copyright, though it seems silly when people are not deriving any income from the images, simply just putting them on a website for decoration or to discuss. However, this attempt to intellectually control what appears on the internet and to seek to close down websites which seek to express visual views of a topic is very sinister. Does the Chinese government try to remove Andy Warhol's image of Chairman Mao, does that of Cuba seek to licence the image of Che Guevara (I know he was not Cuban, but that is the authority with the strongest cultural claim over the image)? How close does my map have to be for the Tolkien lawyers to intervene? Can the outline be the same and the names changed or the names be the same on a different map. If I did an underground railway map of Mordor would I be sued and by whom, London Underground? I doubt it.

There are numerous websites and blogs out there that I would love to see removed because of their views or what they depict, but I accept that in a world of free speech they will be there. It is alarming that a group of lawyers, so assiduously, are policing what is produced, especially when only intellectual and not financial gain is being derived. Do they really believe that someone who wants a map of Middle Earth on their wall is going to settle for a fuzzy jpeg rather than buying one? Clearly they do. I think this is an attitude is self-perpetuating, they have no desire to benefit the estate of Tolkien just to line their own pockets combating the 'threat' that twenty websites have a picture of Middle Earth on them. Of course, fortunately, there are many they have not yet stopped and if you, unlike me, are interested in Middle Earth here is a range of maps:

No comments: