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Lord of the Rings domain fight enters realms of fantasy

Warner Bros puts claim to 1,000 years of history

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films may have appeared to have made the impossible real, but now its backers want more.

While there is no doubt they are the masters of Middle Earth, and all the plastic merchandise that can be forged in the Mountains of Cashin, Warners Brothers, New Line Productions and The Saul Zaentz Company are now determined to extend their dominion.

The Internet lives in a sort of virtual world, so it should come as no surprise that the film's producers and the bloke who bought the film rights off United Artists in 1976 for a set of books by JRR Tolkien (yes, there are books of the film), should seek to gain control of www.shiremail.com.

As was explained so coherently to the owner of Shiremail.com, Tarrant Costelloe, in a letter from the lawyers representing all three parties, Addleshaw Goddard: "The SHIRE name is well-known in the UK and elsewhere, to readers of the Lord of the Rings books (and others) and the goodwill in the name has been achieved through sales of such books.

"The incorporation of the SHIRE name into a domain name by you is a misrepresentation to the public that the domain is connected to the Lord of the Rings books and/or films. In particular, the registration by you of the domain name constitutes a representation to persons who consult the Whois register that you are connected to or associated with the name registered and thus the owner of licensee of the goodwill in the name, which of course you are not."

All the company wants is for Mr Costelloe to realise his mistake and hand over the domain on which he has run an email business since September 2003. Let's look at that reasoning again.

To shear or to shear not

Well, it would be impossible to argue with the legal letter's initial assertion: "shire" is extremely well known in the UK. In fact, it has been well known since around 600AD - not long after the Romans had wandered off. "Shire" in fact stems from the Saxon word "schyran", meaning to shear or divide. It has been used to divide up land for over a thousand years and a majority of counties that still exist in the UK today possess the suffix "shire" (see at the bottom). It was also the origin of the word "sheriff", stemming from "shire-reeve".

In fact, we don't think it would be too provocative to suggest that JRR Tolkien may have been inspired by over a thousand years of common history when he first came up with the name "The Shire" as the idyllic home country of the books' main protagonists, the hobbits.

However, the legal letter claims that "goodwill in the name has been achieved through sales of such books". Certainly The Shire sounded rather nice as presented in the fictional books, but we suspect the goodwill towards the area in which people live was there before Mr Tolkien even put pen to paper.

This is the difficult bit though: "The incorporation of the SHIRE name into a domain name by you is a misrepresentation to the public that the domain is connected to the Lord of the Rings books and/or films." We're afraid that assertion seems to be less than well-founded.

Tarrant Costelloe himself runs a Lord of the Rings-connected website, Planet-Tolkien.com, which has also attracted its share of attention from the Tolkien Estate although the Estate finally decided that an extensive site making no money and actively promoting the very assets that it draws its money from, was not such a bad thing.

But drawing the connection between that website, Shiremail.com, the word "shire" and the film rights possessed to a series of book written a thousand years after the word entered common usage, is stretching things a little too far.

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