Tolkien Enterprises and Sierra On-Line In Legal Battle - RPG Vault Interview With Sierra President David Grenewetzki
"The Saul Zaentz Company contends development of a massively multiplayer online game based on this license [Tolkien's Middle-earth] was cancelled in or around September of last year."
David Grenewetzki (Sierra) Tolkien License Interview
August 24, 2000
Some days ago, we became aware of an unsubstantiated report that stated legal action was under way involving Sierra On-Line and The Saul Zaentz Company, which conducts business as Tolkien Enterprises. The matter in question was apparently the license granted to Sierra by The Saul Zaentz Company for the creation of computer games based on the literary works of the renowned fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien. Sierra is known to have started development of two titles using this license. One was Orcs: Revenge of the Ancient, a strategy title that was cancelled last September. The other is a game in which we have a great interest, the persistent online world called Middle-earth.
At the same time Orcs was cancelled, the Middle-earth development team was removed from that project. It was announced by Sierra that the game would undergo a complete re-design and that full re-staffing was planned. There had been no news from the company since then, and we had heard nothing at all other than a few vague, unconfirmed rumors. In this instance however, we were able to verify that legal action is indeed taking place. After learning this, we contacted Sierra to request further information about the situation. The company was gracious enough to allow us the opportunity for this interview with its President, David Grenewetzki.
Jonric: As a prologue to our questions, it's our understanding that Sierra On-Line is currently involved in legal action with The Saul Zaentz Company, which does business as Tolkien Enterprises. This matter apparently involves The Saul Zaentz Company's desire to withdraw the license granted to Sierra in 1998 for the creation of computer games based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. We are aware of two titles that began development under this license. One is Orcs: Revenge of the Ancients, which was cancelled last September. The other is Middle-earth. At the same time Orcs was cancelled, the Middle-earth development team was removed from that project, with a complete re-design and planned full re-staffing being announced. To begin with, is there any part of this that you'd like to clarify or correct?
David Grenewetzki: We would like to clarify that we are unclear on The Saul Zaentz Company's specific desires concerning the license. For this reason, we have asked the Court to confirm our rights under the license.
Jonric: Please tell us about the licensing agreement.
David Grenewetzki: First, we need to let you know that both parties have promised to keep the terms of the license agreement confidential. Therefore, we can only present information about the agreement that has already been publicly announced.
Jonric: What period of time does it cover?
David Grenewetzki: Under the terms of our agreement, we cannot disclose that information other than to say that it is a long-term agreement spanning many years.
Jonric: How many titles and what kinds of titles is Sierra permitted to develop?
David Grenewetzki: There is no restriction on the number of titles utilizing the Tolkien properties under the license.
Jonric: Is Sierra required to develop a minimum number of games and/or any type or types of games such as, for example, a massively multiplayer online game?
David Grenewetzki: This information is covered by the confidentiality obligation; however, we can reveal that Sierra has complied with its obligations under the agreement.
Jonric: Does The Saul Zaentz Company wish to withdraw this license in whole or just in part?
David Grenewetzki: As we noted above, we remain unclear on the specific desires of The Saul Zaentz Company.
Valen: What part or parts of the license are involved? When did they first initiate efforts to withdraw it?
David Grenewetzki: We are currently attempting to determine this.
Valen: How did Sierra respond?
David Grenewetzki: Sierra responded to The Saul Zaentz Company's actions by asking the Court to confirm our rights under the license agreement.
Valen: We understand that The Saul Zaentz Company contends development of a massively multiplayer online game based on this license was cancelled in or around September of last year. What is Sierra's position with respect to this claim?
David Grenewetzki: The original Middle-earth development team was released and a redesign and restaffing of the development team were announced around that time.
Valen: To date, what other reasons, if any, has The Saul Zaentz Company provided for wanting to withdraw the license?
David Grenewetzki: Because The Saul Zaentz Company has not made clear their desires concerning the license, Sierra does not know the reasons for their actions.
Valen: Again, what is Sierra's position?
David Grenewetzki: Sierra's position is that we have the rights to continue developing and publishing games under the Tolkien license.
Valen: We understand that former Sierra On-Line employees Stephen Nichols, Daniel James, Mark Zechiel and Craig Alexander, all of whom were associated with Middle-earth, have been called on to give depositions. Can you comment on their roles in this matter?
David Grenewetzki: The Saul Zaentz Company has subpoenaed them to appear and provide testimony in this matter.
Jonric: With respect to Middle-earth would be re-designed and re-staffed, can you tell us to what extent this has happened?
David Grenewetzki: As with any unannounced game, Sierra does not comment on specific development details.
Jonric: Is development of this game still in progress?
David Grenewetzki: Yes.
Jonric: What is its current development status?
David Grenewetzki: Sierra does not comment on specific development details regarding unannounced games.
Valen: To what degree has this legal issue affected development?
David Grenewetzki: The Saul Zaentz Company's actions have had a negative effect on the progress of our development schedule.
Valen: It is our understanding that Sierra On-Line is attempting to keep certain elements of the case and/or certain documents confidential. Why is this confidentiality being pursued?
David Grenewetzki: We are required under our agreement with The Saul Zaentz Company to keep certain information confidential.
Jonric: Thanks very much for taking the time to tell our readers about this situation. We hope, along with our readers, that it will be resolved so we'll all have the chance to play games inspired by the works of Tolkien before too long.
David Frank (Valen) and Richard Aihoshi (Jonric)