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Inspired by the comments on this question.

J.R.R. Tolkien sold the rights to film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists in 1968 or 1969. Although he retained enough creative control at first to veto the Beatles' proposal to make an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in the late 60's, it seems that he (and later, his estate) had little or no input in further attempts to make movies based on these two properties.

Since Tolkien died in 1973, his estate has done what it could to protect its property, even suing Middle-earth Enterprises, Warner Brothers, and New Line Cinema in 2012 for making casino machines and video games using the likenesses of Tolkien characters.

And in Tolkien's will, he named his son Christopher as his "sole literary executor", with authority to revise, edit, and publish J.R.R.'s other works. He has done so, releasing several previously unpublished books written by his father - The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth, to name a few. But I'm asking about adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing, not Christopher's publication of his father's previously unreleased writing.

Has the Tolkien Estate - as opposed to Tolkien himself - sold any sort of rights to adaptations of any of Tolkien's works?

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    I have found no evidence of any further rights being sold and Christopher has spoken out against the movies, stating that he has no interest in having other works of his father's being adapted, in part because he didn't like the execution and in part because the studios claim the films made no money and therefore they owe the Tolkein estate nothing. – FuzzyBoots May 26 '16 at 17:10
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    @FuzzyBoots You've got to love the altruism of movie studios. Always making films at a loss so that niche properties like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars can be made. – Xantec May 26 '16 at 18:11
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Possibly, though it's unclear precisely what...

Amazon announced in November 2017 that they had struck a deal to produce a television series based on Tolkien's works, and specifically mentioned the Estate1:

Amazon today announced it has acquired the global television rights to The Lord of the Rings, based on the celebrated fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, with a multi-season commitment. The upcoming Amazon Prime Original will be produced by Amazon Studios in cooperation with the Tolkien Estate and Trust, HarperCollins and New Line Cinema, a division of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

It's not currently clear what role the Estate actually had in these negotiations; one possibility is that the television rights didn't fall under the scope of Tolkien's initial deal with United Artists, in which case they would seem to have sold them (or at least licensed them) now.

Another possibility is that they sold or licensed parts of Tolkien's unpublished drafts; the press release asserts that the series will be a prequel of sorts to The Lord of the Rings:

Set in Middle Earth, the television adaptation will explore new storylines preceding J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. The deal includes a potential additional spin-off series.

Obviously details are scarce, but it's possible that these storylines will be based on material only published in Tolkien's essays, the rights to which had not been sold in 1968.

...but otherwise no

It's difficult to prove a negative, but aside from this deal (and whatever involvement the Tolkien Estate had in it), at time of writing there is no evidence that any other Middle-earth rights have been sold since J.R.R. Tolkien's initial United Artists deal.

What I have for evidence is as follows:

  • As FuzzyBoots remarks in a comment on the question, the Tolkien Literary Estate (through Christopher Tolkien, sole literary executor of the estate) has been extremely critical of all adaptations of Tolkien's work (particularly the Peter Jackson films). That they would choose to sell the rights they have left seems unlikely, given this history

  • The Estate has fought to keep the scope of the rights owned by other companies as narrow as possible; in 2012 they sued Warner Brothers over digital merchandise (in particular, an online casino gambling game), to the tune of $80 million; this suit was settled in July 2017.

  • As I've pointed out before, the Estate isn't interested in so much as licensing the rights they currently have, let alone selling them

  • In a 2014 press conference, reported on by Variety magazine, Peter Jackson outright said as much (emphasis mine):

    "It's a legal thing. The Tolkien estate owns the writings of Professor Tolkien — The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were sold by Professor Tolkien the late 60s... the film rights," he said. "But they are the only two works of his that have been sold. So without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate, there can't be more films."


1 Sidebar, but I find it interesting that the press release mentions the Tolkien Estate and HarperCollins, who hold the literary rights to Tolkien's works, and New Line Cinema, who hold the intellectual property rights of the film material, but not Middle-earth Enterprises, who hold the actual film rights.

My instinct suggests that my first guess was correct, and that Middle-earth Enterprises in fact did not hold the television rights to the stories. But I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not an insider on this deal, so I don't want to come down hard on that point.

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    I personally found it enlightening to know that the Tolkien himself brokered the only deal. The rest has been that single company and its sub-licensing. – FuzzyBoots May 26 '16 at 17:48
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    @FuzzyBoots Indeed. It illustrates to me just how much control you lose when you outright sell your intellectual property rights, making it all the more unlikely that the Estate (as led by CT, anyway) would be willing to do so – Jason Baker May 26 '16 at 17:51
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    Have they ever licensed anything? This article makes it sound like Shadow of Mordor got released under the film rights somehow. Or maybe that's a separate question... – Molag Bal May 26 '16 at 19:28
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    @armadillo Bear in mind that when Tolkien sold the film rights, he actually sold the film, stage, and merchandising rights. Shadow of Mordor completely fits within those rights, so long as it doesn't reference anything from any other printed Tolkien work. As far as I know, the Tolkien Estate has never licensed an adaptation, though they do seem friendlier to scholarly-type works (like History of The Hobbit) – Jason Baker May 26 '16 at 19:33
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    The recent Amazon deal is likely linked to Christopher's resignation two months ago – ibid Nov 15 '17 at 1:19
3

Yes

The 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was licensed directly from Allen & Unwin, not the Middle-earth Enterprises

The idea of doing The Lord of the Rings as a dramatized radio serial was the brain-child of Aubrey Singer, the Managing Director of Radio, and the fact that the child was successfully delivered was due almost entirely to Richard Imison, Head of the Drama Script Unit, who fought long and hard to secure the rights to the book and sufficient freedom for the adaptors to work without the intervention of American movie executives who believed they held a kind of sacred trust to ensure that the book wasn't mishandled! Amusingly, however, it was only when the negotiations were complete that it was discovered— to everyone's surprise and some people's embarrassment — that the radio rights were not actually the property of Saul Zaentz at all, but were still owned by George Allen & Unwin!

Brian Sibley. "The Choices of Master Sibley." Mallorn, no. 17, 1981, p. 8.

This radio adaptation also included things from some of Tolkien's other books.

Curiously, perhaps, the 'additions' which appear to have attracted the most criticism were the visit of the Black Riders to Isengard, and the waylaying of Gríma Wormtongue: which just goes to show how many people have yet to read Unfinished Tales! The other major inclusions frcm secondary Tolkien sources (apart from a few small references from The Silmarillion) were an extract from the 'Riddles' episode in The Hobbit, and the poster-poem 'Bilbo's Last Song', which was substituted for the prose description of the passing of the Ring-bearers given in the book. "If details are to added to an already crowded picture," Tolkien told those prospective film-makers in 1958, "they should at least fit the world desert-bed." (Letters, p.272.) This, too, was my belief and motivating principle.

Brian Sibley. "The Choices of Master Sibley." Mallorn, no. 17, 1981, pp. 9-10.

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It is interesting to note that once upon a time, the Tolkien Estate was much more generous with the license than they have been Post Jackson. For instance , ICE received the okay to publish roleplaying and card supplements in the 1980's and 90's that dealt with material found in the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Legend has it that Christopher Tolkien even provided them with Tolkien's map of Arda before it was published officially in HoME.

Its too bad they wasted those liberal days on such an un-Tolkienian game like MERP. Itd have been much better used on the current One Ring RPG. We can blame the Black Hand of New Line Cinema and the greed of merchandising for turning the Estate against almost any project that rears its head.

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    I don't really see this answers the question. – Mithical Dec 20 '16 at 13:11
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    I never played MERP, but as best I can tell this is factually incorrect. Every source I've been able to find indicates that Iron Crown approached Tolkien Enterprises (now Middle-earth Enterprises), which is the company that currently owns the rights Tolkien sold in 1968; I've found no corroborating evidence to suggest they ever approached the Estate – Jason Baker Dec 20 '16 at 14:28
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    It answers the question in a broad manner; that is to say the Tolkien Estate has not sold the rights to other works in the past. They * have * on the other hand given them freely in the past. – Soy Frappe Dec 22 '16 at 12:07

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