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Japan's 'Ultraman' IP Spat Heats Up After Chinese Sequel to Disputed Movie

Tsubara Productions is already involved in a lawsuit in China against a local movie studio it says released an unauthorized film featuring the hugely popular superhero, which will feature in a Netflix series this year.
'Ultraman'   |   Courtesy of Everett Collection
Tsubara Productions is already involved in a lawsuit in China against a local movie studio it says released an unauthorized film featuring the hugely popular superhero, which will feature in a Netflix series this year.

An intellectual property dispute between the Japanese rights holders to the iconic Ultraman character and a Chinese movie studio has intensified with the release of a sequel to a 2017 movie, over which a legal case is currently underway.

Guangzhou BlueArc Culture Communications released Dragon Force: Rise of Ultraman on Friday in theaters in China, where it has brought in just over $2.5 million in its first six days. Dragon Force: So Long Ultraman brought in $6.8 million in 2017 and triggered a lawsuit in Shanghai from Japan's Tsuburaya Productions Company, which owns the copyright to the hugely popular superhero.

The trial began earlier this month in Shanghai, where Blue Arc maintained that it had been granted the rights to use the Ultraman character.

At the root of the dispute is a Thai businessman, Perasit Saengduenchai, who has long claimed to have been given the overseas rights to Ultraman by its creator, Eiji Tsuburaya. However, Saengduenchai told a court in Los Angeles in November 2017 that his company UMC had no such rights, according to a statement issued by Tsuburaya. The court ruled in April last year that UMC had no rights and awarded $4.5 million in damages to Tsuburaya for rights infringements and legal costs.

"TPC is the sole copyright owner and holder of all ULTRAMAN series ("ULTRAMAN Works"). This is a fact without any dispute," wrote Tsuburaya on its website last week in response to the release of the new movie.

An Ultraman television series by Blue Arc also began airing in China late last year.

Meanwhile, an authorized original anime Ultraman series is set to begin streaming on Netflix globally this spring.

Chinese companies have been infamous for either directly copying or borrowing heavily from existing IP from other countries, though the situation has improved in recent years, with more official licensing taking place.

The original Ultraman TV series, featuring actors in suits playing the superhero who comes to Earth to battle monsters and other enemies, was a smash hit when the 39 episodes aired on Tokyo Broadcasting System from 1967-68. It remains a huge part of pop culture in Japan with numerous spinoffs, imitators and massive merchandising sales over the years.

In November, Japan's Koei Tecmo Games received a payment of more than $200,000 after a Beijing court ruled against a pirated version of its Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII game distributed in China. It was a rare win for a foreign company in an IP dispute in China, though Koei Tecmo spent more on legal fees than it was awarded in compensation. The case was originally launched in May 2016.

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