BUCKSPORT, Maine — When Kevin and Mandy Wheaton opened their farm off Ledgewood Drive last April, they couldn’t see anybody having a problem with the name they gave it:
Hobbit Hill Homestead.
“I thought a Hobbit was a small, woodland creature with giant hairy feet, and they were fun-loving and liked to smoke their little pipes,” Mandy Wheaton said, “like a gnome or a leprechaun.”
Well, it turns out that somebody did have a problem with the Wheatons using the name Hobbit — Middle-earth Enterprises.
That’s the California company that owns worldwide rights to trademarked terms within British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, including “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” It’s an arm of The Saul Zaentz Co., which produced the animated 1978 “Lord of the Rings” film.
The Wheatons received an email March 7 from Fredrica Drotos, a business affairs specialist from Middle-earth, who asked the farmers to stop using the name for their farm. Mandy Wheaton was stunned at the request.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she wrote back to Drotos.
Alas, no. The Wheatons, Drotos said, had encountered a reality that might have seemed like Tolkien fantasy in the pre-internet age — the ability trademark holders have to find trademark infringement around the world.
Drotos said that she has no trouble believing that the Wheatons were innocent of any nefarious intent when they chose to honor Tolkien’s work by naming their farm after it.
“We are happy,” Drotos said, “that you love the Hobbit, or name your dog Frodo, but once you start making commercial use of it, we have an obligation to protect our trademark.”
Companies spend millions of dollars defending intellectual property from theft, and it’s generally a losing battle, Drotos said.
According to a U.S. Trade Representative report published in April 2018, systemic intellectual property theft just in China costs American companies at least $50 billion per year.
The Wheatons’ case was never that severe.
The farm raises nubian dairy goats, fresh eggs, garden vegetables, and silver fox and Flemish Giant rabbits. She expressed some consternation, but Mandy Wheaton agreed to change the farm’s name. She soon discovered, however, that unwinding a year of marketing wasn’t as easy as, say, Gandalf waving his walking stick.
“We have already been here a year, and I am already so established as Hobbit Hill that people tag me on pages on Facebook and I get people referring customers to me,” Wheaton said.
The farm mails hatching eggs all over the country to be incubated at other farms, so the name tangle has serious repercussions, she said.
The Wheatons might have faced the same problem had they named their business after a gnome or a leprechaun. The word “gnome” appears to be the legal property of The Gnome Foundation, while the University of Notre Dame claims to own icons such as the leprechaun and shamrock.
Mandy Wheaton checked, she said, and found no trademark issues with the farm’s new name — Wheaton Mountain Farm.
“We don’t expect to hear from Wil Wheaton,” she said.