The embattled history of Battletech: The Animated Series

Originally published at: The embattled history of Battletech: The Animated Series | Boing Boing

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Toy Galaxy is a great channel if you like toys and cartoons.


Given the fact that the game designers couldn’t be bothered to come up with a single original mecha design, I don’t see how it could have gone otherwise. Licensing the tabletop game must have been a coup in and of itself.


There are literally hundreds of original designs in BattleTech, going back to 1985. Sure the artwork from the original board game was from anime, but it was licensed (or so FASA believed). FASA even got Studio Nue, the designers of the Macross mecha BattleTech used to redesign the mechs for the Japanese release of BattleTech.


Plus, a some of the lawsuits were from Harmony Gold, who had not created any of the mech designs either. The situation is still murky, but it seems the rights situation in Japan was a huge mess as well and FASA got caught up in the mess.

Fun fact: the first person to threaten to sue FASA was George Lucas, which is why the game is now called BattleTech instead of BattleDroids. I think most people agree that Lucas did them a favor in the end.


Oh, all of the lawsuits targeting BattleTech were from Harmony Gold. About 12 years ago, Catalyst Game Labs, BattleTech’s current publisher actually went to the trouble of securing the Macross, Dougram and Crusher Joe art from the Japanese rights holders primarily so they could publish an art book for the game’s 25th anniversary, reprint old books with the art intact and use the designs in books set in older game eras - they redesigned all the units that originally had art commissioned outside of FASA in the early 2000s to avoid any more lawsuits and write it into the game as modernisation of old tech- only to discover that there was a sealed judgement between FASA and Harmony Gold that prevented them from using the art after all, which CGL had no way of knowing about until HG sicced it on them.

Fast forward a few years later, after the offending mechs are redesigned for MechWarrior Online and look closer to the originals than Catalyst’s mid-2000s efforts, CGL decides to retcon the old art and do a new wave of designs that are closer to the original designs but still distinct. End result is another round of lawsuits from Harmony Gold, targeting CGL, Piranha Games and Harebrained Schemes, which ends with the current BattleTech creators able to use their new art. And then two years ago CGL did a kickstarter to get plastic minis of those mechs and a bunch more into production and net a cool 5 million. So some level of happy ending.


Licensing designs from Japanese media was insanely common at the time though. Transformers came out of licensing multiple full toy lines out of Japan and coming up with a marketing comic book to explain why these robots turn into vehicles.

With the Battletech thing you’re looking at a pretty small company that needed to fill out some rule books and what were essentially board game pieces fast and affordably. They weren’t going to be hiring dozens of illustrators and designers or spending years on prep work.

They seem to have been just beyond the two guys in a basement stage at that point.


The is pretty much it. FASA were at a toy and game fare looking to drum up business when they got to talking with people from a company called Twentieth Century Imports who had acquired a large stock of Japanese model kits and were looking for a gimmick to sell them. FASA figured they could put a game together that featured robots and came up with Battledroids - the original box set came with rules, maps, counters, standees and two TCI-provided 1/144 scale Dougram kits. TCI sold BattleDroids/BattleTech branded kits that contained two mech models (or two mechs and one Dropship), a scenario and stats for the units inside.

The problem is that TCI claimed they had the rights to license the artwork related to the kits to FASA and that may or may not be true, the company closed sometime before the FASA/Playmates/Harmony Gold lawsuit pile-up in the 90s.


That’s also pretty common in that era. The gist is FASA sub licensed multiple IPs though a license holder, then those things also got licensed directly. And some one went all IP troll over it. Because 80s, and because amateurs working in Japan, nothing was super clear on the limits or terms.

The same problem is all over toys, animation, and games of era. Including a shit ton of this in the early video game business.

Hard to fault those guys for making exactly the same mistakes as everyone else, while doing exactly what everyone else was doing. I mean Hasbro basically turned into a billion dollar company on the back of exactly this.


Yeah, and Macross is one of the prime examples of how messed up the legal rights for 80s anime can get. @jandrese mentioned it upthread, in fact.

“Basically”, Macross was produced by an advertising company called Big West who wanted to branch out into animation sponsorship. Due to budget concerns they looked for a production partner - which turned out to be Tatsunoko Productions. Part of the deal was that Tatsunoko would have international distribution rights to Macross, and a couple of years later they licensed Macross, Southern Cross and MOSPEDA to Harmony Gold, who spliced them together into Robotech. Macross was a big hit in Japan but after the TV show, a movie retelling and a music video compilation the creators were ready to move on, and the franchise laid fallow for 10 years, when Big West produced Macross II, and then in short order Macross Plus and Macross 7. In the US Robotech remained somewhat of a thing, but largely because of a slow, steady stream of tie-in novels, and a mix of adaptations and original stories in comics were a cornerstone of the burgeoning manga and manga-style side of that market.

And then the unpleasantness started. LA Hero licensed Macross II for US distribution and Manga Entertainment nabbed Macross Plus worldwide, and Harmony Gold noticed that people were making money off of stuff vaguely related to Robotech and wanted in. They alleged that their license from Tatsunoko covered Macross and all derivative works in perpetuity, and while they couldn’t block the licensing of Macross II or Plus, they did use that to block the grey market import of Macross merchandise from Japan and shy people away from trying to license Macross Zero when it came out in 2002. Tatsunoko alleged that this was perfectly OK because they held the international rights to all of Macross and anyone should be working through them.

This lead in part to a major lawsuit between Big West and Tatsunoko over who actually owned Macross. The Japanese courts ruled that Tatsunoko own the rights to international distribution of the original Macross TV show and nothing else, and Big West owns everything else, including the distribution rights for all the sequels. But Harmony Gold continues to claim that this ruling doesn’t effect them as it didn’t take place in an American court.

In 2016 Harmony Gold and Tatsunoko entered into arbitration over payments, and the end result was that the Macross license needs to be renewed rather than being in perpetuity now. While anime fans assumed that meant Harmony Gold would lose the license when it came up for renewal in 2019, Tatsunoko chose to continue their relationship. It also transpired that any legal fees Harmony Gold incur related to Macross are deducted from their license fees for Macross, and apparently both parties are fine with that. What it effectively means is that nobody who works in anime localisation is willing to spend the money on the newer Macross shows because it either means working with Harmony Gold and either splitting the income or somehow tying it to Robotech instead of just releasing a Macross sequel, or engaging in a legal battle and hoping that an American Judge agrees with the Japanese court decision.


I remember reading somewhere that the FASA founders created the tabletop game because they didn’t have enough money to pursue their virtual reality ideas. I used to go to the BattleTech Center every Monday in the 90s. It’s sad that the whole concept failed and most of the pods are gone today.


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