Tsuburaya Productions announced on Tuesday that the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit has upheld Tsuburaya's international licensing rights to the Ultraman property in the company's legal battle against UM Corporation (UMC).
A jury in the district court in the central district of California reached a verdict in favor of Tsuburaya in November 2017. UMC filed motions to overturn the verdict, but the court denied its motions in March 2018. The district court in the central district of California entered final judgement in favor of Tsuburaya in April 2018. UMC filed an appeal in May 2018, claiming that the district court made errors before and during the trial that prejudiced UMC, and therefore required a new trial. On December 5, the Court of Appeal rejected UMC's appeal and affirmed the jury's verdict and district court's judgment after extensive written briefing and an oral argument.
Tsuburaya Productions was alerted to the uploading of videos from early Ultraman series on YouTube by Verdana Entertainment. UMC had sublicensed the rights to Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultra Seven to Verdana Entertainment in 2014. Tsuburaya Productions demanded the removal of the episodes, and Verdana Entertainment complied. UMC then filed the case in May 2015 to contest Tsuburaya Productions' claim on the international licensing rights for Ultraman. UMC claimed to own the exclusive licensing rights to Ultraman outside of Japan, through a transfer of the rights in 2008 from Saengduenchai to UMC. Tsuburaya Productions then filed a counter-suit, alleging that the supposed original agreement between Saengduenchai and Tsuburaya Productions made in 1976 was invalid.
This one-page agreement allegedly granted Saengduenchai the international rights to Ultraman and all derivative works in "all territories except Japan for indefinite period from the date of production of the first negative print." Tsuburaya asserted that Saengduenchai first presented the document to the company in 1996, the year after Noboru Tsuburaya passed away, and had not exercised the rights allegedly granted by the agreement prior to this time.
Tsuburaya has contested the document in Japan, Thailand, and China. Tsuburaya won the lawsuit in Thailand based on handwriting analysis, and it became a criminal case in which Saengduenchai was convicted of forgery. However, the document was determined to be authentic in Japan. Tsuburaya won its lawsuit in China, but the decision was reversed to match the Japanese decision.
Tsuburaya Productions contested UMC's claim of possessing the international licensing rights for the property. Tsuburaya Productions alleged UMC's claims were based on a "License Granting Agreement" with Thai businessman Sompote Saengduenchai and his company Chaiyo Productions, an agreement which Tsuburaya Productions also considered invalid. The court affirmed Tsuburaya's entire claim that the document of agreement between Tsuburaya Productions and Chaiyo Productions, supposedly written on March 4, 1976 and signed by then-Tsuburaya Productions president Noboru Tsuburaya, was inauthentic.
The jury's determination in the U.S. case rested on the admissibility of a digital copy of Saengduenchai's old passport, which would determine whether it was possible for him to be in Japan on March 4, 1976, the date of the alleged signing of the "License Granting Agreement." The judge noted that digital copies such as the one presented in evidence are easily altered or forged, and it could not prove that each separate image of the passport originated from a single document.
Chinese production company BlueArc similarly produced and opened a movie titled Dragon Force: So Long, Ultraman in China in October 2017, based on a license it supposedly acquired from Saengduenchai and Chaiyo Productions, which is based again on the same 1976 "License Granting Agreement."
Sources: Tsuburaya Productions, Animation Business Journal (Tadashi Sudo)