By Vincent Teh
I love movies, I always have and I always will. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a geek and neither would I ingratiate myself with the pointy eared and leotard sporting fan boys at the Comic-Cons, I do consider myself the Rain Man of movies. Although my not inconsiderable knowledge in all things silver screen has proven to be very handy in pub quizzes and movie charades, when it comes to impressing the female of my species, let’s just say I am no Casanova. I have learnt to limit my conversations with the ladies to “hello” and “goodbye”, or sometimes if I am bold enough, to drop in a few casual remarks on the current or projected meteorological development. I’ve learnt this the hard way, as last year I was “advised” (several contusions and fractured ribs) by my colleague that some ladies (herself included) do not necessarily appreciate being compared to Godzilla, no matter how tall they are.
While I now appreciate that an insignificant few may take offence at being likened to a monstrous reptile, I honestly believe that most of us should happily embrace the moniker. Because for all its general unpleasantness, its penchant for wanton property destruction, its complete disregard for human life, its scaly flabby unprepossessing features, there is no denying that Godzilla is one of the world’s most bankable superstars.
In Japan, Godzilla has appeared in 28 movies produced by its creator, Toho Studios. And in 1956, following the giant footsteps of King Kong to the land of golden statues and money, Godzilla made landfall in America starring in the Hollywood produced Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, introducing it to the West and the rest of the world. Two movies followed in 1985 and 1998, both of which roped in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Godzilla’s stardom is not limited to the celluloid, it also starred in several long running television series, innumerable comic books and electronic games, making it a worldwide pop culture phenomenon with its own merchandise.
With all these publicity and media appearances, if Godzilla were flesh and blood, it would most definitely be one of the richest celebrities. Unfortunately for Godzilla (fortunately for humanity), it is only a fictional character and will never see a penny of its hard earned cash. Instead, Toho is the one profiting from the spoils of the monster’s desolations. With its array of intellectual property (IP) rights covering multiple aspects of the character, Toho has done what scientists throughout the ages had thought impossible: milk a gargantuan nuclear-ray belching amphibious reptile for all it’s worth.
Toho’s ginormous IP portfolio on Godzilla includes the international copyright to the design of Godzilla and its various co-star monsters. Even the distinctive roar of the monster is subject to copyright protection. However, unknown to many, Toho also owns numerous trademarks relating to Godzilla internationally. In the US alone, Toho has 17 registered trademarks covering everything from the words “GODZILLA” and “ZILLA”, to the designs and representations of the monster itself. Even in Malaysia, Toho is the owner of 4 registered trademarks on the word “GODZILLA” for items like CDs/DVDs, stationery, books, clothing, toys and games. This is to ensure that any company wishing to produce anything with the image of Godzilla or its name will first have to obtain a license from Toho for a fee (commonly in the form of royalties).
IP rights licensing has long played an important role in the movie industry. Traditionally, successful films tend to generate a line of successful studio licensed merchandise such as toys, games and other collectibles. However, in recent years, we have seen many movies that are based on toys or action figures (e.g., G.I. Joe, Transformers, Battleship, etc.) where the studios would obtain a license from toy manufacturers to produce the movies. With modern CGI technology, we are also seeing a lot more convergence and collaboration between the publishers of books and comics with the movie studios, (e.g., The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, 300, The Avengers, Thor, etc.). Even computer games are being made into movies (e.g., Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Need for Speed, etc.). All these collaborations are based on the licensing and cross-licensing of a host of IP rights worth billions of dollars. In fact IP licensing is now the heart and blood that drives the movie industry. Recognising the importance of IP rights in the movie industry and how much they have contributed to society, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) announced that the theme for this year’s World IP day, which falls on 26th April, would be “Movies – A Global Passion”.
Incidentally, this year is also the 60th anniversary of Godzilla’s film debut. And we shall be seeing the return of the King this May in yet another American summer blockbuster reboot produced by Warner Bros. and Legendary. It seems Godzilla at the age of 60 remains one of Hollywood’s most reliable monsters. With its ferocious tantrums, horrid manners and a propensity for acts of violence, it certainly would fit right in with some of Hollywood’s most famous. I won’t be surprised if it is asked to join the cast of geriatric action movie stars in the next instalment of The Expendables. It could play Dolph Lundgren’s long-lost identical twin brother, or after a few kilotons of Botox from Sly’s personal collection, it could be Barney Ross’ love interest. If that indeed is the case, the producers will do well to avoid the mistake made by Warner Bros. in including a Godzilla look-alike in its movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure without obtaining a license from Toho. Warner Bros. had to pay an undisclosed amount to settle the case with Toho after it was sued by the latter.
Sure enough, as long as the King of Monsters continues to wreak havoc on a biblical scale, Toho will continue to reap its bountiful royalties. However, Toho can only do so if it retains exclusive rights to Godzilla. Not one to rest on its laurels, Toho has a team of lawyers every bit as ferocious as the monster they are protecting to mercilessly defend Toho’s IP rights. In 2002, a US vintner was made to destroy its inventory of “CABZILLA” cabernet sauvignon which featured the image of a roaring Godzilla holding a glass of wine on its label. Vendors at the Yankee Stadium were singed by Godzilla’s lawyers for selling inflatable Godzilla replicas in honour of Yankees’ player Hideki Matsui, whose nickname is “Godzilla”, without Toho’s consent. In 2008, ten years after Godzilla ripped apart the New York subway, its lawyers took a bite at sandwich giant Subway and demanded USD 150,000 in compensation for featuring a Godzilla-like dinosaur in its TV commercial. Even Toho’s compatriot was not spared – HONDA was sued not once but twice, in 1992 for flying a giant Godzilla float in the New Year’s Rose Parade and recently in 2011, for showing a seconds-long footage of a fire-breathing Godzilla in a commercial. So before you even think about getting on the bad side of the radioactive reptilia from the deep dark abyss, consider the ungodly devastation that its lawyers will rain upon you. You have been warned.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and need not reflect the views of KASS nor of its clients.