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January 2018: Jury Trial Victory in Fight to Save Ultraman

January 2018

Quinn Emanuel scored a major jury trial victory for Japanese entertainment company Tsuburaya Productions Co., Ltd., involving rights in Tsuburaya’s iconic superhero character “Ultraman.” Created by Tsuburaya in the 1960s, “Ultraman” has become as famous in Japan and other parts of Asia as “Superman” or “Batman” is in the U.S. Today, the Ultraman universe includes dozens of movies and television shows and countless products based on the “Ultraman” characters and works, including toys, books, and clothing. Because of a decades-long dispute regarding ownership of “Ultraman” outside of Japan, however, Tsuburaya has struggled to make inroads with “Ultraman” in the U.S. and other western countries.

The background of the dispute—which is as bizarre as any question that has been imagined for a law school exam—is as follows: In 1996, a Thai man, known as Mr.  Sompote, claimed that he owned all rights in “Ultraman” outside of Japan based on a onepage contract that, he asserted, had been executed 20 years earlier by Tsuburaya’s former president, Noboru Tsuburaya. Before Mr.  Sompote brought the document to Tsuburaya in 1996, no one at the company had heard about it or seen it. To make matters even more complicated, Mr. Tsuburaya had died just months before Mr. Sompote came forward— leaving no other witness who could attest to the alleged formation of the purported contract. Nevertheless, the document bore indicia of reliability—it had a purported signature of Noboru Tsuburaya, and it contained what appeared to be the company’s official “hanko” seal.

Shortly after Mr.  Sompote made his claim, the parties began litigating over the authenticity and meaning of what came to be known as the “1976 Document.” Over the past two decades, courts in Thailand, Japan and China have reached varying results regarding whether the document is a real contract, or whether it was forged, and if it is real, what it means. The divergent foreign judgments have made it virtually impossible for either side to exploit “Ultraman” outside of Japan, which has been devastating to Tsuburaya.

The dispute finally reached U.S. shores in 2015, when a Japanese company formed by Mr. Sompote’s son, called UM Corporation (“UMC”), sued Tsuburaya in the Central District of California, seeking a declaration that the 1976 Document is authentic, and raising claims for breach of contract and copyright infringement. On behalf of Tsuburaya, Quinn Emanuel filed counterclaims against UMC, Mr.  Sompote and others for a declaration that the 1976 Document is not authentic and for copyright infringement.

In November 2017, after Quinn Emanuel defeated UMC’s motion for summary judgment and prevailed on its own, the question of the authenticity of the 1976 Document was tried to a jury. The two-week trial, conducted before the Hon. André Birotte Jr., was notable for the significant amount of testimony in foreign languages and from witnesses who are no longer living, and was also riddled with esoteric evidentiary disputes about “ancient documents” and witness foundation for authenticating evidence from decades ago. The trial also prominently featured competing expert testimony on forensic document examination, including whether the signature on the 1976 Document was genuine.

After minimal deliberation, the jury unanimously found that the 1976 Document was not authentic. With this significant victory behind it, the path has been cleared for Tsuburaya to greatly increase the presence of “Ultraman” in the United States and elsewhere. Quinn Emanuel’s trial team was led by founding partner John B. Quinn, partners Ryan S. Goldstein and Daniel C. Posner, and associate Zack Schenkkan.