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Anna C. Belkina Feb 04, 2015 (19:04)

I have a question on copyright that couldn't be resolved by googling it all over the net :), so I would be happy to hear your thoughts.

Let's say I want to create calligraphy art pieces that would incorporate a) Tengwar (any English mode); b) Quenya phrases (composed by me or other authors who granted permissions to use their texts, but not JRRT's texts) written with Latin characters; c) Same Quenya phrases written with Tengwar.
Is it legit to do a), b) or c) without an explicit permission from the Tolkien Estate?

If this was a question of online fanart, the reality is that no one cares (although if you know stories of Tengwar/Quenya/Sindarin fanart being removed per TE or other agency request please share). However, if I want to submit my work to any local exhibit, the exhibit committee would require me to prove the text either to be original or public domain. People are very careful nowadays... no quotes from living poets or writers... I am not kidding. If a calligraphy magazine selects my piece to be published, I need same kind of proof so that they feel safe to publish it. And, of course, if I generate any income from this art (selling prints or originals - I highly doubt that, but let's imagine for the sake of discussion that it is possible), I also need to resolve any doubts.

Now, there's a well-cited article from 2007 ( that discusses this issue. Michaels says that as a writing system, Tengwar is probably not copyrightable. Also, as a language system, Quenya or Sindarin are not copyrightable either. So this should be simple and easy - YES, one can create art with Tengwar characters, and write pieces in Quenya, and generate any income from that, without any permission from the TE. Yet - is looks like it's not.

As a scientist, I am a layman :) and not a lawyer, and although I find Michaels's explanations very sound, it would be great to hear opinions of others, especially if any of the readers here sought for some legal advice on this matter. I am talking about US laws now, but feel free to illustrate your opinion with examples from other legal systems. Again, according to the same article, the Estate is tackling such cases quite aggressively, and considers that "Quenya and other Elvish languages... are copyright works and, accordingly, a license is required for any uses of them which would otherwise amount to copyright infringement." Could anyone share stories about such disagreements to be resolved one way or another?

Here are couple of real life examples I found related to my question. Recently we saw tengwar fonts removed from Dan Smith's website, although I read discussions (, where people were puzzled and wondered what kind of cease and desist request had caused that (any updates on that?).

Curiously, around the same time a number of Tengwar calligraphy pieces were removed from Daniel Reeve's website (e.g., That's probably a pure coincidence; still, there are some movie-inspired Latin fonts, but no Tengwar font for sale on Reeve's website, and no Tengwar calligraphy prints for sale (although he takes private commission orders, according to some fan sites with folks posting photos of art they commissioned/bought). He is in NZ, though, and not in the States.

Please share your thoughts!
+Fiona Jallings - as someone working on a Kickstarter-powered project that involves Tolkien languages, you have probably pondered this a lot...

(the photo is a bundle of drafts from my instagram just to prove my interest is not purely academic :))
I have a question on copyright that couldn't be resolved by googling it all over the net :), so I would be happy to hear your thoughts. Let's say I want to create calligraphy art pieces that would incorporate a) Tengwar (any English mode); b) Quenya phrases (composed by me or other authors who granted permissions to use their texts, but not JRRT's texts) written with Latin characters; c) Same Quenya phrases written with Tengwar. Is it legit to

Rodrigo Lima Jaroszewski Feb 04, 2015 (19:10)

You should talk to Penningtons Manches, I believe they must still be the legal representatives of the Tolkien Trust. Mr Gavin Stenton was the person that took care of my inquiry back when I had to deal with them. His email is

Tamas Ferencz Feb 04, 2015 (19:28)

I don't profess to have any sound knowledge about this, bit it is a hugely interesting question you have raised, Anna, and please keep us informed if you find out the answer

Tamas Ferencz Feb 04, 2015 (19:28)

Oh and your work is outstanding!

Anna C. Belkina Feb 04, 2015 (20:39)

+Tamas Ferencz , thanks! I'll post here what I can find. I wonder if I should crosspost this to lambengolmor... Carl F. Hostetter would know if he is reading this!

Anna C. Belkina Feb 04, 2015 (20:47)

+Rodrigo Jaroszewski, thanks for the tip! Don't get me wrong, I am sure there ARE ways to get permission from TE. My question is whether we need one at all.

Rodrigo Lima Jaroszewski Feb 05, 2015 (00:27)

That's why I suggest you to talk to them, Anna, because I've read once on Elfling that you could use Elvish languages, as long as you don't use the characters from LotR and don't tell a story that is on the same world or akin to it. If you get that answer, than you can tell us and end quite a long debate concerning this matter.

Jonathon Omahen Feb 05, 2015 (04:48)

You may be interested in the following article from +The Verge :

As a linguist, what I can say is: it makes no sense whatever to claim copyright to a language itself, nor its writing systems. Whether the language spontaneously arises from a community of speakers, or a single author (Zamenhof, Tolkien, Okrand, etc.), it doesn't fundamentally change what language is. As a system of communication, one that is defined by its speakers and writers, consisting of essentially arbitrary agreed-upon symbols and structures, it does not in any way apply under the concept of copyright. Rather, the fixed form of expression, for instance a particular grammar, word list, lexicon, etc., would be copyrightable. This would mean the precise wording, formatting, and other details of this fixed expression are protected under copyright. However, the underlying 'facts' could not logically be claimed to apply as well. If one were to learn the facts behind a copyrighted work, and then reproduce those facts in an original expression or work, a prosecutor would be hard-pressed to prove a violation of copyright. For instance, cookbooks are widely used for their recipes, instructions and theory. Underlying the words on the page are of course the formulae themselves (which are represented as the recipes in fixed form), the theory and facts. If you were to write down your own version of a formula (recipe), without copying directly from the source, this is not a violation of copyright (

Fun thought exercise: Hangeul is said to be the work of essentially one man. Should he have been able to claim copyright? If so, does this make sense for an entire country's language to have a copyright-protected writing system? Likewise, revitalisation efforts for languages (Hawai'ian, Maori, Hebrew) amount to creation of new words (very much like a constructed language); should these words then be protected by the bodies and organisations that create them?

Disclaimer: IANAL, and I approach these issues from logic, reason and most of all, linguistics. And none of these philosophical sciences support the concept of copyright protection of language.

Anna C. Belkina Feb 05, 2015 (06:25)

+Jonathon Omahen , thanks for the link, this article is very helpful and covers the same argument on "non-copyrightability" of any language under US law very well. They even fearlessly reproduced some Tengwar as a lead image :)

Fiona Jallings Feb 06, 2015 (04:24)

As far as I know, it's possible to copyright sequences of morphemes, but not the language itself. But, I'm not a lawyer, and all I know is that I haven't been bothered yet.

Our translation-archive idea should fall under fair-use, since it's for scholarly commentary. I think so, anyways. Again, I have no actual lawyer training or authority.

Anna C. Belkina Feb 08, 2015 (05:26)

For those of you who are still following the thread: I have contacted Dan Smith, the author of Tengwar fonts removed last year, and here's the story of his interactions with TE in his own words (he has generously granted permission to post it here):
In 1996, I was urged to contact the Tolkien Estate and get their blessing - which I did.  In my letter I asked for permission to distribute my Tolkien inspired fonts free of charge to Tolkien fans and scholars.  They responded positively and stated that as long as my intentions were non-commercial, I had their blessings.
In 1999, "" bought "" and suddenly my free website cost $5 per month.  So I set-up a paypal account and added a "please donate" button to my web pages.
Over the years I have been contacted by several individuals with commercial interests, and I have always told them the same thing: "My fonts are free for use, but if you want to make a commercial Tolkien product, you need to contact the Tolkien Estate."
In 2002, I was contacted by a jewelry company in Britain about creating rings with Tengwar inscriptions.  I told them the same message as above.
In 2003 they went into production and send me a small donation (which I thanked them for).
In 2014, 11 years later, I receive a cease and desist letter from the Tolkien Estate.  Apparently, the British jewelry company never got permission from the Tolkien Estate to make their Tolkien products and claimed that when I accepted their small donation for my font, I was actually granting them permission to make Tolkien products.  The funny part is that the British jewelry company never used any of my fonts in their products - they used a Tengwar font made by someone else!
After several correspondences, they did rescind the "cease and desist order".  They will now allow me to continue freely distributing my fonts, but only if I can verify that the recipient is a "serious Tolkien scholar", and not a fan, or someone with a commercial interest.  Since I don't have time to screen every font request, I have decided to remove them from my website.
I look at the the Tolkien alphabets not as something that is copyrighted or trademarked, but as something that is the intellectual property of the Tolkien Estate.
Just as the names Frodo, Gandalf and Elrond are also the intellectual property of the Tolkien Estate, so I wouldn't write a story about them and try to sell it commercially.
I'm sure if I wanted to hire a lawyer to fight them, I would probably win - but what would I win?  The right to give away free fonts on the internet?  For me it's just not worth the fight.
My comment: couple of points.
First of all, seems like the only reason Dan's (and only his) fonts were targeted is because of some nefarious folks who tried to wiggle out of trademark conflict by pointing to an non-profit artist. I am glad to hear that the original C&D letter was recalled by TE.
Now, what I find not that optimistic is this: if fans in 1996 were treated favorably,  fans in 2014 are not, maybe because of the "monstrous" public image of PJ's creation and by proxy its fandom's. Being 'a serious scholar' seems to be OK still.
Also, the formula of conditions for distribution that were provided by TE (verify a user to be a serious scholar and not a fan) sounds very much not legally spoken to me. How can one verify that? Would letters 'P-h-D' after my name protect me from being counted as a fan? What if I have BOTH PhD and Tauriel's costume (sorry,  I don't really...)? This sounds almost unprofessional to me, just as some other statements from TE legal team that were quoted in Theodora Michael's article. I'm kind of puzzled.
Anyway, here's the story, for whoever is googling "Dan Smith Tengwar fonts" in the future.

Tamas Ferencz Feb 08, 2015 (09:21)

+Anna C. Belkina thank you for the follow-up! The problem with the approach of the TE is that there is probably a very limited scope of what a so called "serious scholar" would need such fonts for. Yeah, print a few words in a book on Tolkien. Use or on the cover design.
Do e.g. Helge, David, Thorsten, Roman rank as "serious scholars"? (I have no doubts about the Editorial Team) In my eyes they certainly do, but who knows what the Estate's definition would be?

Jonathon Omahen Feb 13, 2015 (04:00)

+Anna C. Belkina , thanks for reporting your findings. It is somewhat disturbing to me to see what is essentially weight being thrown around, for something that is, I believe, rather silly.

Fiona Jallings Feb 18, 2015 (23:07)

So, funny story... we just got a cease and desist letter from a Tolkien Estate lawyer. Any advice on how to deal with these pricks?

ETA: "We" being the translation-publishing software project people.

Tamas Ferencz Feb 19, 2015 (00:36)

+Fiona Jallings that is quite horrible

Jonathon Omahen Feb 19, 2015 (01:12)

+Fiona Jallings , is there any more information, or is it simply a generic C&D?

And, sadly, I was kind of expecting it. As soon as money is involved, they seem to surface (looking through the Elfling archives shows this multiple times).

Fiona Jallings Feb 19, 2015 (01:20)

I've never seen a C&D order, so I don't know what one should look like. Mostly, they said that they owned the tengwar writing system, which i don't think is possible, and they missunderstood what the project will do, thinking that it'd be republishing all of Tolkien's works or something like that. They clearly have no idea what our project is. Our project is like MSWord - a tool used to make documents. The author's of those documents control the content of them - not us.

Anna C. Belkina Feb 19, 2015 (02:18)

Oh, this doesn't sound good.... :((
A standard advice for those matters is a) to communicate with the party that sent you C&D through your own lawyer only and b) discuss the matter in detail and clear any miscommunications. For instance, as far as I understand from your website, tengwar is not an essential part of the project, and you are not making a library of Tolkien's texts/compositions; so it is possible that the letter you received is indeed generic, and TE requests are actually not to the point.
I am not a lawyer so I can't lend a hand, unfortunately :(

Andre Polykanine Jun 12, 2015 (14:13)

Horrible things you tell, brothers and sisters.
So, am I right that:
1. I can't use neither the word Quenya itself nor any (non-JRRT) content in this language in a book written by me and that is supposed to be sold?
2. I can't use even my (Elvish) name to sign a work that is to be sold?
thanks in advance.
P.S. This is really important for me.

Tamas Ferencz Jun 13, 2015 (09:47)

Just tagging +Fiona Jallings​, +Jonathon Omahen​, +Anna C. Belkina​, as they may not have seen this new comment

Fiona Jallings Jun 14, 2015 (20:53)

The legal trouble that we had with the Tolkien estate focused around the Tengwar, not the language itself. They don't want people selling stuff with Tengwar on them. If you sign your name with latin letters but have it be in Elvish - that's fine. But written with Tengwar? No. At least that's what I understood of it.

Anna C. Belkina Jun 15, 2015 (01:10)

Tengwar is a sound-encoding system that is comprised of mostly non-unique characters and character elements (that's why it's so easy to imitate the  "Elvish look" in writing with Latin characters based on Insular or Uncial variations) organized in a table based on phonetics. As such system, Tengwar could had been PATENTED in due time... but not copyrighted, I think (personal non-legal opinion, of course).

Jonathon Omahen Jun 17, 2015 (21:38)

Just to directly answer you:

1) This is not necessarily a problem. Depends entirely on the content of your book, how you use the term, etc.

2) You can absolutely use words or names in Quenya, Sindarin, etc. as names as signatures.

As +Fiona Jallings points out, the trouble was concerning use of the Tengwar, not necessarily what was being written.

As has been discussed above, the Tengwar as a system is an orthography, and shouldn't really be protected under copyright as is.  My understanding is that, in general, copyright does not apply to typography (fonts, etc.). But it does apply to source files, etc.

The Tolkien Estate has sent C&D's with some regularity/predictability on this issue. I do believe a court case could be won if anyone took it up. But it is prohibitively expensive.

Fiona Jallings Jun 17, 2015 (21:58)

The expensive part is what makes them such massive assholes about this, and why we are at their mercy.

Jonathon Omahen Jun 17, 2015 (23:07)

+Fiona Jallings I need to buy you a tea, coffee, or something next time I'm in MT. I second.

Fiona Jallings Jun 17, 2015 (23:27)

Tea, definitely. In fact, if anyone wanders by Montana, I'm in Missoula, and we have a fantastic tea shop called Butterfly Herbs. It's be a great place to meet and nerd out.

Eric T Holmes Oct 24, 2015 (19:30)

This is so silly.  So if I decided to place a Tengwar symbol on my grand-daughter's Halloween costume of Tauriel, would I be in violation of three copyrights:  the Tengwar, the costume because of the movie, and "Tauriel" the character?  Does cosplay come into "copyright violation?"  Gosh!  where is this all going?

Ицхак Пензев May 06, 2016 (17:47)

Now we all are watching over Paramount vs. Axanar case. It deals with the Klingon langauge issue (among other things). This copyright thing is really frustrating.

Fiona Jallings May 21, 2016 (10:59)

I read the... amicus brief? (Not sure if that's the right term) for the case and it is a beautiful thing, full of Klingon phrases and sneaky Klingon insults.