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From the Answerman column, August 24, 2013.

Quoting it here just to have it on record, at least until someone manages to do and publish more in-depth research about it...

Ben asks:

With all the talk for years (if not decades) regarding Harmony Gold, Macross and the reasons why we aren't getting the likes of 7, Zero or Frontier, my questions are how did Macross Plus (and, to a much, much lesser extent, Macross II) manage to end up in Manga Entertainment's catalog, and why weren't there any major legal dust-ups between Manga Entertainment and Harmony Gold regarding this?

That's actually a really good question! I have no idea, and have occasionally wondered that, myself. So, to answer your question, I had to dig deep. And by "dig deep," I mean send an email to two people I've known for years. Back breaking work, writing this column.

First, the idea that Harmony Gold is standing in the way of Stateside releases of Macross-related shows is one that has been floating around for years, and originated from a few cagey responses from industry professionals at anime conventions. I wanted some confirmation that Harmony Gold had Macross-related trademarks, and whether they were willing to work with anime companies that might want to release Macross-related shows that Harmony Gold had no financial stake in. I sent an e-mail to Kevin McKeever at Harmony Gold, who was good enough to forward my question onto their legal department. Here's their response:

The original Macross television series was the result of a monumental collaborative effort involving several companies of creative individuals. We at Harmony Gold appreciate all the hard work these combined talents put forth to make Macross possible. As the legal rights/co-copyright/trademark holder for Macross outside of Japan, Harmony Gold's door is always open to any anime company who wishes to have their product reach a global audience through our world-class distribution partners.

In other words, yes they own the trademark. And the implication here is definitely that they'd be open to using those trademarks ONLY if they're the ones that get to distribute the show. So, how did LA Hero and their successor company Manga Entertainment manage to get both Macross II and Macross Plus out on store shelves without getting Harmony Gold all over their case?

I... don't know. I tried to find out. Ken Iyadomi used to run LA Hero (which licensed both properties before being purchased by Manga Entertainment), and then worked for Manga during their release. I reached out to him, but he declined to comment, stating only that the rights situation for the entire Macross world was "crazy." He's doubtlessly referring to not just Harmony Gold, but all the legal nuttiness involving Studio Nue and Tatsunoko in Japan, which culminated in a lawsuit some years back. In short, even without Harmony Gold in the way, Japan probably doesn't even have it together legally to license a Macross show overseas.

So what have we learned? Not much, I'm afraid: just that nobody touches Macross anything without involving the Robotech people, and that whatever wormhole in space and time that once allowed LA Hero to license those two OAVs back in the 90s has long since closed, leaving us forevermore Macross-less.

There is a short description of the Tatsunoko vs. Studio Nue/Big West dispute on Wikipedia, though unreferenced. I've had a quick look for info. in Japanese, but haven't been able to find any Japanese references to it yet. Looks like that'll be another task for the holidays...

Someone named Sakura Shinguji on the ANN forums also had something to chip in:

It's worth noting that Harmony Gold didn't file for the few Macross trademarks they do hold, and really start aggressively marketing and protecting Robotech, until 1999 (of all years). It's likely no coincidence that shortly thereafter was when AnimEigo reached an agreement with Harmony Gold to remaster and release the original Macross TV series (which they did in 2001), as well as ADV licensing and releasing all of Robotech on DVD (also in 2001).

Macross II and Macross Plus were able to be licensed not because of complacency on HG's part (though that's how they like to try and color that history to imply that they always had control and just didn't exert it), but because as far as Big West and Bandai Visual were concerned, there was no problem at the time. HG's license then and now only ever involved the original Macross series. And they weren't trying to bluster and take charge of the entire franchise via dubious backdoor methods until they started filing trademarks.

It's been hinted across teh Interwebs that Manga's unrestricted releases of II and Plus, all the way up through the initial DVD release of Plus in 1999, as well as Plus' obvious popularity Stateside, was what prompted HG's move to place a stranglehold on the property when they did.

The trademarks, incidentally, are a matter of public record, as you would expect. They can be found by searching the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's database. So, no secret there.

As for the lawsuit, easily the worst thing that came of it is Harmony Gold's assertion that, despite the lawsuit retroactively nullifying Tatsunoko's ability to legally license Macross to them in the first place, they still claim the license is valid because a Japanese court decision doesn't affect them. Which is patently false, but who these days wants to spend the money to take them to court over it? No one. Maybe back during the boom years when everyone was spending money like crazy, but not now.

There's also been the implication that it's actually up to Studio Nue, Big West and Bandai Visual to assert the proper legal standing of that ruling, by using it to challenge the license on their end via forcing a retraction out of Tatsunoko, or simply by licensing, say, Plus, to someone else here in the U.S. as is their right to do so. If that's true, that's kind of great, but also really terrible, as the only thing that would prompt the involved parties to do that would be if they perceived that significant profit could come of clearing the way for someone in the U.S. to license a whole bunch of Macross stuff, which is just not the case these days with the domestic anime, etc., market being as contracted as it is.

The only problem then is HG's trademarks, which would have to be resolved in court here, via a legal challenge by a domestic licensee and/or one of the involved Japanese parties. Which, again, is unlikely to happen.

Alternately, as I've mentioned elsewhere before, there shouldn't be anything legally stopping the Japanese from licensing something like Macross Frontier to a U.S. studio, and said U.S. studio then overlaying the title card, calling the series something without the word "Macross" in the title, excising the word from the dub (if one were produced), and declining to include the name in the subtitles.

HG's trademarks do not specifically cover "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." situations, barring a legal challenge, which they shouldn't want as that route would likely render their assertion of Macross ownership officially void as per the Japanese ruling. Nor do their trademarks specifically cover any derivative works; their standing license is only for the original series, after all.

Or, Bandai Visual could just start making more English-friendly Japanese releases and selling those releases directly here. As it is, there's nothing legally preventing anyone here from importing things like the Macross Plus Blu-ray box set on their own, or preventing Bandai Visual from including the dub for the OVA version and subtitles for the movie version as they did.

I think the statement that Justin received from HG's legal department is hilarious, because of how good it actually is. The whole statement, if you actually read it carefully, only specifically asserts legal ownership over the original series and any modified forms it may take (i.e. Robotech), while otherwise being generic enough to strongly imply as HG always has that anyone wanting to license derivative Macross works would still need to get HG's approval, which is not technically true, pending a real legal challenge to clarify that HG's original license was rendered invalid by the Japanese court cases a decade ago.