News hit today that Toei was being sued by an American businessman. Specifically, Isaac A. Potter Jr. filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Colombia on December 9, 2010 on allegations that Toei Animation’s Knights of the Zodiac infringes on his copyrights. Potter is seeking $1 billion in punitive damages, plus unspecified statutory damages.

Before I go on, I’d like to shed some light on this suit’s background. Potter and his brother Samuel J. Potter obtained copyright protection for a drawing, titled Zodiac Knights 2000 On October 10, 1995, under the name Potter Boys’ Creations. Two years later, on February 24, the duo filed a trademark for Zodiac Knights 2000 ZK, which would be used in licensing for cothing, games, advertisements, and the like. The two failed to enforce the trademark, though, and it was deemed abandoned and dead on April 9, 1998.

In May 2003, the Potters released a book titled Zodiac Knights 2000 Featuring Creatures of the Knights: Creatures of the Knights (A New Era) through self-publishing firm 1st Book Publishing. A year later, they received a new trademark for Zodiac Knights 2000.

On Toei’s side, the company adapted Masami Kurumada Saint Seiya into an anime series that ran from 1986-1989. In 2002, ADV announced that they acquired the domestic rights to Saint Seiya at Otakon. A year later, ADV Films and DiC revealed that they would release the series in two flavors: A subtitled version under the original title, and a dubbed version that they were translating and releasing for DiC. DiC later announced that this version would air on Cartoon Network in the US. Because of this, Toei registered a trademark for their property that would cover animation, trading cards, clothing, and toys in 2002.

In 2006, the Potters filed suit against Cartoon Network in Georgia’s Fulton County. Cartoon Network filed two motions for dismissal, though they were both denied. The court found that the brothers’ trademark was still active due to the 2004 filing. Toei states that the plaintiffs have no legal grounds for the suit, and plan to fight it while trying for dismissal.

Before I go further, let it be known that I am not a lawyer, nor am I a legal expert. I’m a software engineer by trade.

With that out of the way, this looks like a classic case of trademark trolling. The exorbitant damages sought by the brothers are a pretty telling sign of this. Frankly, if this were gaming, or it were standard film, I’d pay less mind. However, this is the first time it’s happened in recent memory with the anime industry. That alone is pretty teling, considering that we’ve seen manga and anime titles released under far more shameful titles in the past.

Personally, I don’t foresee this holding much water in courts against Toei. Saint Seiya was both an example of prior art, and the title of Knights of the Zodiac is different enough that it doesn’t directly infringe on the original title. To see Toei fight the case does mean that the proceedings going forward will be interesting. I don’t doubt that we’ll be hearing more about this case as it moves forward. The outcome will be important, as an actual loss by Toei could have ramifications that echo through the industry (even though the Potters will probably never get the billion they’re asking for… that’s just obscene).