If one thing can be taken away from the legal battles of Ultraman, it is the fragility of copyright law and how abused it can truly be.
We’re living in a great time for the Tokusatsu genre, especially for Tsuburaya Productions and The Ultra series. From Mill Creek’s pumping out complete series Blu-Rays to Marvel’s upcoming The Rise of Ultraman comic series and, most especially, Tsuburaya releasing their current series, Ultraman Z, on their YouTube for free with English subtitles.
With the Ultraman franchise 55th anniversary happening in 2021, it is very clear Tsuburaya is making an aggressive push to reach a global audience and so far it’s working! But there’s a sad truth behind this as Ultraman could’ve reached that level ever since he debuted in 1966, but due to backstabbing and a decades-lasting lawsuit, Ultraman was almost stolen from the world.
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Here He Comes! Our Ultraman!
First, let’s rewind this story all the way back to 1974. At this point, Tsuburaya had already exported Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultraseven internationally with moderate success. Domestically Tsuburaya’s Tokusatsu ventures remained strong with the sixth entry of the Ultra series, Ultraman Taro, along with other series such as Jumborg Ace and Fireman. During this time Tsuburaya was itching to export their series into other markets, particularly other Asian territories as Tokusatsu was becoming a very sought-after commodity. Enter Sompote Saengduenchai and Chaiyo Productions.
In 1973, Thai filmmaker Sompote Saengduenchai reached out to the then-current head of Tsuburaya Productions Noboru Tsuburaya, the son of the late founder and creator of the Ultra series, Eiji Tsuburaya, for a collaborative agreement with his production company Chaiyo Productions for two films featuring the first six Ultra series, Jumborg Ace and sole distribution right in Thailand. Tsuburaya agreed and created what would be called “The 1973 Agreement.”
The films that would both be released in 1974 were Jumborg Ace & Giant and The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. The Monster Army. These films feature characters, effects, and suits provided by Tsuburaya along with a Chaiyo creation Hanuman (based on the Hindu god of the same name). The films would be incredibly successful in Thailand and neighboring regions such as Malaysia as Ultraman would be a pop-culture staple, even to this day, for many tokusatsu fans in those areas. However, any legitimacy from Chaiyo when it came to Tokusatsu would essentially end right there.
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Not long after the release of the two Tsuburaya co-produced films, Chaiyo and Sompote would approach another Tokusatsu studio, Toei, who were behind series such as Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, for collaboration with the use of the Kamen Rider franchise. However, unlike Tsuburaya, Toei denied the use of their characters, but that didn’t stop Chaiyo. In 1975 Chaiyo would release Hanuman and the Five Riders, which featured the return of Hanuman and the unauthorized use of several characters of the Kamen Rider (Ichigo, Nigo, V3, Riderman, and X) series along with footage from the Kamen Rider X film Five Riders vs. Dark King. The film would never be released in Japan due to its obviously illegal nature, but it was still a hit in its native country and one could see this as a turning point for Chaiyo when it came to intellectual properties.
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Ultraman Battles Copyright Law
On June 11th, 1995, Noburu Tsuburaya would sadly pass away, leaving his son Kazuo Tsuburaya to take over Tsuburaya Productions as its CEO. Not long after, Sompote would visit Kazou himself and present the newly appointed CEO a document. The document was a “contract” Sompote claimed was made in 1973 which gave Chaiyo sole international rights to Jumborg Ace and the entire Ultraman franchise outside of Japan for a monetary loan. According to Sompote:
I couldn’t let the company go down and suggested we make a movie together. I lent Noboru 2.02 million baht to produce Giant and Jumbo A.Sompote Saengduenchai
Sompote would further claim in 1976 that Tsuburaya Productions were in heavy debt to Chaiyo and, as such, Noboru gave them the international rights to Ultraman and Jumborg Ace as compensation. Tsuburaya Productions were immediately suspicious of Sompote as many stated Noboru never mentioned such a deal; even the higher-ups were completely unaware of the supposed deal.
The timing was also very convenient for Sompote as not only he approached Tsuburaya not long after Noboru’s death, but around the same time, Tsuburaya was ready to try again in marketing their tokusatsu franchises internationally as seen in Ultraman Towards The Future, the US re-edit of Gridman The Hyper-Agent (re-titled as Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad), and planned re-airings of their classic Tokusatsu shows. But the most damning thing against Chaiyo would be the contract itself.
Chaiyo’s contract was filled with many misspellings, misnaming, or completely wrong information, such as Ultraseven being called “Ultraman 3: Seven” and Tsuburaya Productions being called “Tsuburaya Prod. and Enterprises” (a name the company never did business under). The most egregious mistake was on Chaiyo’s own co-productions with Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman and Jumborg Ace & Giant as “Haruman and the Seven Ultraman” and “Giant vs. Jambo ‘A'”, respectively. Rightfully seeing the contract as fraudulent, the dispute would be taken to court for the first time.
In 1998, the first of what would end up being many battles between Tsuburaya and Chaiyo would be fought in the Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade Court or IPIT. In their first case against Chaiyo, Tsuburaya Productions pointed out many of the misspelled and wrong information seen in the document as proof of it being fraudulent. During the court case, the then managing director of Tsuburaya Productions, Masaki Umemoto, would state the following:
The names of some shows are misspelled or just plain wrong, not only that; Noboru’s signature isn’t his official one.Masaki Umemoto
Tsuburaya would also have several individuals who know Noboru personally to testify, stating he never mentioned such a deal to anyone in the twenty years the contract was claimed to have been written.
During this time Tsuburaya completely halted marketing the original six Ultraman series outside of Japan until they were absolutely sure the case goes in their favor. They did however tried to market Ultraman-related media after Ultraman Taro, such as the English Dub of Ultraman Tiga by 4Kids, and promoting the 2004 theatrical film ULTRAMAN THE NEXT.
Unfortunately, the copyright disputes led Singapore and Malaysia to ban imports of Ultraman literature to the respective nations, much to the ire of fans there. In fact, across the world, many Tokusatsu fans would blame Thai fans for the situation, under the presumption they supported Chaiyo and Sompote, though the outrage would thankfully die off soon after.
It would be in 2000 when IPIT would reach a decision. The court stated that while Tsuburaya Productions solely owned the intellectual rights of Ultraman as a character and television series, they favored Chaiyo as having complete international rights over the franchise due to the presence of Noboru Tsuburaya’s Hanko or legal seal. As expected, Tsuburaya would try to make an appeal, even bringing the case to the Tokyo district court.
While Tsuburaya was silent on the matter, Sompote would make dubious or outright false public claims during the lawsuits, such as claiming to be the co-creator of Ultraman, stating he’d shown Eiji Tuburaya some Thai Buddhist edifices that would be the “inspiration” for Ultraman’s facial design, despite there being zero evidence of this.
Sompote would then continue his egregious behavior by creating another production company called Tsuburaya Chaiyo Co. with Sompote himself as president, hoping the studio would be the sole source for other companies to reach out in licensing Ultraman internationally.
It was then on February 27rd, 2003 that both Thai and Japanese courts would reach an agreement, but because the decision would not be fully known due to misinformation and Sompote clearly not being honest about the situation. The final ruling has been disputed. Sompote would state in a press conference:
I have fought for seven years and documents that prove I was in the right, and now I intend to enhance Ultraman’s commercial prospect. The fight was not just for myself and my family, but for the dignity of all Thais.Sompote Saengduenchai
Though officially at the time Chaiyo only had the right for the six Ultra series internationally which included Ultra Q, Ultraman, Ultraseven, The Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Ace and Ultraman Taro, along with Jumborg Ace. However, this would change on April 27th, 2004 as the courts stated that Chaiyo only had “usage rights” to the aforementioned series while Tsuburaya had sole copyright over Ultraman worldwide, while also declaring Tsuburaya Productions as the only studio legally allowed to make new Ultraman media.
You Are In Violation Of Ultra-Law!
Unfortunately, it is clear Chaiyo and Sompote were not interested in the courts’ decision as they continued to spread misinformation to different Thai and Asian news outlets, such as the Thai News Agency and stating Sompote was given complete international control over Ultraman and over 30 characters, even stating that Tsuburaya had to pay damages against Chaiyo. Meanwhile, in Japanese news outlets, Tsuburaya would state the court went in their favor and would continue further action against Chaiyo. Sompote, under Tsuburaya Chaiyo Co., would continue to produce unauthorized Ultraman merchandise such as an educational series and video games. But this was nothing compared to their biggest unauthorized project ironically titled Project Ultraman.
In 2005 Chaiyo announced their upcoming Project Ultraman multi-media via stage-show and would’ve included a new TV series, three original Ultras (Ultraman Millenium, Ultraman Elite, and Dark Ultraman) and even an Ultraman theme park. But soon after Tsuburaya Productions rightfully filed a cease and desist against Chaiyo and the Thai courts agreed. As such Project Ultraman was shelved indefinitely despite casting the Ultras and completing a pilot episode for the series. However, the Thai courts did rule somewhat in Chaiyo’s favor in terms of merchandising the original series, but they are not allowed to create any new Ultraman series or even market the franchise without Tsuburaya’s consent.
On February 5th, 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled in Tsuburaya’s favor, stating Sompote was not the co-creator of Ultraman and had given him 30 days to stop profiting off the Ultraman franchise. But unexpectedly in 2009 both the Thai and Japanese courts would rule in favor of Chaiyo. Tsuburaya Productions were forced to pay over 16 million yen (roughly 150,000 USD) to Chaiyo for supposed violations of international copyright over the franchise. With this ruling, Chaiyo would make a “confer” with Japanese-based company UM Corporation (or UMC), whose representative director, Perasit “Pete” Saengduenchai (one of Sompote’s sons) for primarily the first six Ultra series. Though Chaiyo would continue to market Ultraman outside of Japan such as several physical media releases through companies such as Mill Creek and Shout! Factory.
It was then, in 2014, Chaiyo became even more ambitious with its next multimedia project, Ultraman Forever, for Ultraman’s 50th anniversary (despite the fact the series and character’s 50th anniversary would’ve been in 2016). Chaiyo’s plans included a six-season DVD box set (which would have included Ultraman, Ultraseven, Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, and Ultraman Leo) and several collectors art books. Although Chaiyo would silently cancel these plans despite having pre-orders open. Instead, Chaiyo would found Ultraman USA Inc in 2015. Through Ultraman USA, Chaiyo planned to have the original six Ultraman series released on Blu-Ray, release brand new figures based on the characters, and even a movie and a Netflix original series. Tsuburaya would intervene though and all these plans would again be scrapped (which seems to be a running theme).
Mega Copyright Battle!
During the time Chaiyo tried and failed to market Ultraman in the US, UMC license the first six Ultra series to affiliate Veranda Entertainment LLC. In 2015, Veranda would try to upload the original series on YouTube, but Tsuburaya would have the episodes taken down. In relation, UMC would file a lawsuit against Tsuburaya for not only violating Chaiyo’s 1973 “agreement”, but even for damages of releasing Ultraman media outside Japan for being “too similar” such as Ultraman Tiga.
During the lawsuit, UMC would license Ultraman to the China-based BlueArc Group (a multi-company group that consists of Blue Magic Culture Communications, BlueArc Culture Communications, and Blue Arc Animation) and with that, BlueArc planned to include Ultraman in their CG animated film series Dragon Force with the 2017 film Dragon Force: So Long Ultraman.
When BlueArc released the trailer on the internet, it would gain massive backlash from Ultraman fans due to the uncanny valley-esque design of Ultraman and his antagonistic role in the film. The backlash would catch Tsuburaya’s attention and file a cease and desist over the films despite BlueArc claiming they gained the license legitimately and have plans to include Ultraman in more films (though this case is currently ongoing as of the writing of this editorial).
After twelve years of legal nonsense, Tsuburaya Productions would finally get a major victory for themselves and for Ultraman fans across the world. On April 28th, 2018, the Ninth Circuit District Court in the United States would make a final decision in Tsuburaya’s favor as they deemed the document of the 1973 Agreement as fraudulent and prohibited UMC and all affiliated companies from authorizing, distributing, and marketing any and all Ultraman related media. The court also had UMC pay for Tsuburaya’s legal fees and damages. While UMC tried to make an appeal, they would miss their deadline on March 4th 2020, thus making the court decision final once and for all.
From the Land of Light for the Sake of Righteousness
If one thing can be taken away from these legal battles, it is the fragility of copyright law and how abused it can truly be. While many companies would try to abuse the rights they already own, it is also clear how powerful one can be in taking the rights from the rightful owners with the help of charisma and a strong legal team.
It was very clear Chaiyo only wanted absolute control over Ultraman outside of Japan knowing how beloved the character has become for so many generations. It even goes against what the actual creator of Ultraman, Eiji Tsuburaya, wanted for his creation: a beacon of hope for children of every generation.
Though with their last major legal victory, Tsuburaya Productions has made it clear they will ensure Ultraman is legitimately given to a global audience with their nonstop physical media release from Mill Creek, the simulcasting of their current series Ultraman Z, and the upcoming Shin Ultraman from the creative teams behind Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shin Godzilla, Hideki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, it is clear we are living is a great time to be an Ultra fan.