Earlier today, Anime News Network reported that Tatsunoko Production filed a lawsuit against three members of anime licensor Speed Racer Enterprises. The company alleges that Speed Racer Enterprises exploited the rights to the Speed Racer anime even after their license expired. Tatsunoko is seeking $1 million in damages from three named defendants in the suit:

  • James J. Rocknowski
  • John E. Rocknowski
  • Michael S Cisneros

According to the lawsuit, Tatsunoko granted Speed Racer Enterprises a ten-year license to the Mach Go Go Go anime in 2000. The license was extended by one year, but ultimately expired in May 2011. Tatsunoko alleges that the three named defendants continued to exploit their license past expiration, and that they sub-licensed their rights to two companies:

  • Lions Gate Entertainment
  • Toonz Entertainment

In addition, the company’s website currently asserts that they still hold the rights to the property. Specifically, it states:

Speed Racer Enterprises owns the worldwide rights to the Classic Speed Racer animated television property as well as the all new Speed Racer:The Next Generation animated series coming in May, 2008 on Nickelodeon Networks. The company manages all merchandising and related activities for the property, including licensing, marketing, promotion, public relations, retail development for the famous brand.

Now, before we get going, let’s look at a few points:

  1. The sub-license to Lions Gate was in 2008, when the studio produced the Speed Racer: The Next Generation TV series. It’s unknown as to whether the license is still in effect. However, the last produced episode aired in November 2011.
  2. Toonz is the Singaporean anime studio that produced the Speed Racer: The Next Generation series.
  3. DVD volumes for the Speed Racer: The Next Generation stopped being released in May, 2009. However, they are still being actively sold on retailers such as Amazon

For this, I’m going to overlook the website commentary, to some extent.

“Why would you do that?”

Well, dear reader, it’s pretty clear that this was a slipshod front page that was abandoned within five minutes of its posting to the web. Its claims that the Speed Racer remake is “coming in May, 2008,” as well as the fact that SRE’s main site consists only of this single content page that was created on December 16, 2007 are enough that I can claim negligence. However, this is something that can be cited as evidence in the upcoming suit, since it is a public claim to ownership from Speed Racer Enterprises. While it’s a slim chance, the fact that it’s still up and running, despite the expiry of the license could potentially be considered an active breach of the license agreement.

The text of the Speed Racer Enterprises site – untouched, and unedited.

What’s more interesting is the active sub-license to Lions Gate. Speed Racer: The Next Generation was seeing new episodes air until November of last year, which is six minutes past the expiration date of the license. Depending on how payouts were structured, this could mean that SRE was seeing profits for the five episodes that aired between October 18 and November 24. If the company did show profits, they would be in clear violation of the contract, as it would signify exercise of the license. Similarly, the fact that Lions Gate is distributing DVDs of the series indicates that the company is working within its own license, and paying proper royalties for the Speed Racer license. Since SRE no longer holds the license to Speed Racer, profits derived in the months following May 2011 violate SRE’s licensing agreement, and expose the three defendants to further liability.

The case that ensues will be fascinating to watch. While I expect a swift judgment on the part of Tatsunoko, I am curious about what will come about in the suit itself. Little is known as to how the company is managed, or how they used the license in their decade of ownership. We do know that they are no stranger to the legal arena, as DiC sued SRE in 2003, with allegations that they had a valid sub-license, despite SRE’s disavowing of the agreement. It will be truly interesting to see if Tatsunoko’s suit brings up more, similar dirty laundry as the months go on.