Will the real Bilbo Baggins please stand up? Not a trick question but a pressing legal one after a defunct 1970s rock band named after the JRR Tolkien fantasy fiction character attempted to reform.
The row pitted the mighty American film company behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies against a little-known Scottish band whose main claim to fame was that they once sang backing vocals for the Bay City Rollers.
It follows similar recent legal disputes between the Saul Zaentz Company (SZC), which holds the rights to Tolkien’s novels and their characters, and two obscure UK establishments: Birmingham’s Hungry Hobbit café and The Hobbit pub in Southampton.
The musicians’ dreams of a reunion have ended in disaster at the Intellectual Property Office after a judge decided to shut down an appeal. Bilbo Baggins’ former manager Henry Spurway was told that calling their revived act “Henry Spurway’s Bilbo Baggins” did not differentiate it clearly enough from the famous hobbit Bilbo.
Mr Spurway’s attempt to register the band’s name fell flat when SZC filed an objection which was later upheld. Adjudicators reviewing the case had to decide whether punters would connect the band’s name with the hobbit character played by Martin Freeman in the recent film. The adjudicator, Geoffrey Hobbs QC, said there was no reason to send the case to a fresh hearing in the Scottish courts.
The ruling brings the band’s history to an ignominious end. They toured in the 1970s, stirring minor interest with lost songs “Saturday Night” and “She’s Gonna Win”, which peaked at 42 in the charts.
“Everyone thought Bilbo Baggins were going to be the next thing,” said lead singer Colin Chisholm, after he resurfaced as a contestant on a recent series of the BBC show The Voice. “It just didn’t happen, even though we had a huge live following.”
Tolkien sold the rights to his characters to United Artists in 1969 for £100,000; seven years later they were sold on to SZC, which has shown itself quick to bring cases where it feels its material has been infringed. Last year, however, it failed to stop the London-based marketing firm Ocean Outdoors from offering advertising space on two towers on either side of a motorway despite SZC’s claim that this was similar to the title of one of the volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.