Japanese Superhero Caught in Film, YouTube Rights Dispute

Two Japanese companies duel over who owns Ultraman outside his country of origin.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

YouTube is just the beginning of two Japanese companies' fight over one of the country's most iconic superheroes.

In a complaint filed on Tuesday in California federal court, UM Corporation accuses Tsuburaya Productions of posting TV episodes featuring Ultraman on the site, which UMC says violates its licensing deal with Tsuburaya for the rights to the character, and planning further breaches of the deal.

Ultraman was created by Tsuburaya for the series Ultra Q and an Ultraman series, both in 1966. The character, a super-powered giant who fights kaiju monsters, became a hit and featured in dozens of sequel TV series, movies, video games and other offshoots.

UMC claims it became in 2008 the exclusive rights holder of some early Ultraman series for use outside Japan. The company transferred the rights to three Ultraman series (Ultraman, UltraSeven and Ultra Q) to the distributor Verdana Entertainment in 2014, states the complaint.

When Verdana posted episodes of the series on YouTube, the site's Content ID system (meant to deter infringement) identified other posts of the same episodes, "indicating that [Tsuburaya] is illegally airing entire episodes of the Ultraman works." Tsuburaya then contacted the distributor and demanded it remove the episodes, which it did, fearing a lawsuit from the company.

Tsuburaya allegedly warned the distributor it owns the global rights to the Ultraman series. "UMC has since learned that in clear violation of the 1976 Agreement, TPC presently claims ownership to all of the Ultraman works it has uploaded to YouTube in 256 countries worldwide," states the complaint.

In addition to claiming Tsuburaya is interfering with its contract with Verdana, UMC wants the court to rule it owns the exclusive rights to the Ultraman episodes outside Japan (including for YouTube, which permits content providers to geographically specify where their videos are viewable).

Part of why UMC wants the rights dispute decided by the court is the company is working on its own Ultraman movie. "UMC has expended money and resources in developing its own derivative Ultraman characters and plans to create a new Ultraman brand based on the Ultraman works," states the complaint.

The plaintiff claims copyright infringement, breach of contract and interference with contractual relations. It seeks unspecified damages. Richard H. Zaitlen of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman filed the complaint. 

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Tsuburaya for comment.