When I was growing up, I watched a lot of television. I was a latchkey kid and every day after school my brother and I would come home and turn on KTVU and watch shows like Ultraman. Ultraman, if you don’t know, was a Japanese science-fiction show that ran from 1966-67 but, much like Star Trek, it circulated widely in reruns and had an outsized influence on subsequent sci-fi pop culture.
So when I read last week’s China Film Insider story about an allegedly unauthorized Ultraman film being produced in China, it felt like a personal insult. A Chinese fan-created Ultraman movie would be amazing, but the producer of this film, Chinese film company Blue Arc Animation, is just making a blatant ripoff.
Or are they?
Japanese company Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd., the creator of Ultraman, alleges Blue Arc Animation has no right to make an Ultraman film in China. But Blue Arc contends they got the rights from UM Corporation, another Japanese company. And UM Corporation contends it owns all foreign rights based on an alleged 1976 agreement in which Tsuburaya’s president Noboru Tsuburaya granted Thai filmmaker Sompote Saengduenchai the exclusive, perpetual foreign rights to Ultraman. Sompote’s rights were then assigned to his son Perasit Saengduenchai, who in turn transferred them to UM Corporation, who in turn has licensed the rights to a number of companies all over the world.
Tsuburuya has consistently held that the 1976 agreement is a forgery, not least because Sompote didn’t even mention the existence of such an agreement until 1995, after Noboru Tsuburaya had passed away. The dispute has led to a number of lawsuits between Tsuburuya on the one hand, and Sompote and his successors in interest on the other. Back in the mid 2000s, Tsuburuya won several victories in Thai and Japanese courts, which seemed to bring things to a close, but not so much. The victories were only partial victories, and the key piece of evidence in Sompote’s favor is that the 1976 agreement, despite having a number of inaccuracies and other indicia of inauthenticity, was nonetheless chopped with Tsuburuya’s company seal. And so the litigation has continued. Most recently, UM Corporation sued Tsuburuya in a Los Angeles federal court, alleging copyright infringement, breach of contract, and intentional interference with contractual relations. I just checked the docket and the case, staffed by a number of big-firm LA litigators, is still going strong.
What does all this have to do with China? First of all, this should be a wakeup call for anyone with a Chinese entity who thinks they don’t need to know where their company seal is at all times.
Second, it’s an example of how NOT to license copyrighted content in China. What sort of due diligence did Blue Arc Animation conduct regarding the rights they were allegedly getting from UM Corporation? Our international media and entertainment lawyers have conducted due diligence on numerous film projects in China, saving more than one high-profile project from guaranteed litigation over the source material.
Chinese courts are getting better about enforcing copyrights. The dispute between Tsuburuya and Blue Arc Animation hasn’t resulted in a lawsuit in China – yet – but Blue Arc Animation has to be wondering what they have gotten themselves into. Are the Ultraman copyrights registered in China under either their name or the name of UM Corporation? Do they have a licensing agreement with UM Corporation written in Chinese and enforceable under Chinese law? Is the licensing agreement registered with the Copyright Protection Centre of China? Unless the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Blue Arc Animation will be hard pressed to prove it has any rights at all. And meanwhile, if Tsuburuya hasn’t already registered all relevant copyrights for Ultraman in China, shame on them.
If you are going to spend millions of dollars on a film project (or even just tens of thousands, as may be the case here), you need to be careful you are not buying a pig in a poke.