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California judge issues temporary restraining order against 'Age of the Hobbits'

A federal judge in California has ordered a temporary restraining order against a "mockbuster" film studio that will temporarily prevent it from releasing its direct-to-video film "Age of Hobbits" a few days before New Line Cinema's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" hits theaters.

Warner Brothers, which owns New Line, had sued studio The Asylum, alleging that "Age of the Hobbits" infringed on the trademarks it owns with respect to film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" novels.

The Asylum had tried to claim that the word "hobbit" had entered mainstream use and had become a generic term for a small, human-like creature, but Warner Brothers presented evidenc that consumers were likely to be misled and think "Age of the Hobbits" was in some way an "official" film adaptation of a Tolkien work.

In his ruling, the judge said "the majority of factors" weighed in favor of customer confusion, meaning people who rented "Age of the Hobbits" at Redbox would likely think it was linked to "The Hobbit," and that no factors weighed against such a conclusion.

This has been an interesting test of intellectual property law. Generally, people can go ahead and make parodies, commentaries and spoofs of trademarked or copyrighted material, but they cannot just appropriate elements of such material and use them for their own aims.

"Age of the Hobbits" tested the legal understandings of what constitutes a fair borrowing or use and what amounts to an unlawful knockoff. The Asylum has a long history of making direct-to-video movies with names similar to those in theaters, evidently in hopes of confusing consumers and getting them to rent the films.

Source: E! News, "Age of the Hobbits: Judge Stops Release of Knockoff Movie," Bruna Nessif, Dec. 10, 2012

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