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Godzilla proves even giant monsters need lawyers

He spews radioactive fire, razes cities and pummels creatures from Earth and beyond, but even Godzilla needs a good lawyer sometimes. After all, you don't survive 60 years in the movie business without taking some fights to court.

For decades, attorneys acting on behalf of Godzilla's owners, Tokyo-based Toho Co. Ltd., have amassed a string of victories, fighting counterfeiters and business titans such as Comcast and Honda along the way. The opponents have come from all corners of pop culture: TV commercials, video games, rap music and even the liquor industry.

The litigation has kept Godzilla's brand thriving and helped pave the way for commercial and merchandising tie-ins that will accompany the monster's return to the big screen on Friday after a 10 year hiatus. Godzilla's image is for sale, but permission is needed.

Toho's attorneys use copyright and trademark law as effectively as Godzilla uses his tail and claws to topple buildings and swat opponents. Their court injunctions have permanently whacked music, books and movies from store shelves.

Since the mid-1980s, Chuck Shephard of the Los Angeles law firm of Greenberg Glusker has been Godzilla's lead lawyer, filing suits like the one against a wine called Cabzilla that resulted in a winemaker being forced to dump its stock of Cabernet Sauvignon down the drain.

"Godzilla is just as protected as Mickey Mouse," said Shephard in a recent interview. Toho's lucrative licensing efforts, which include endorsements, toys, comic books, video games and even official wine and sake brands, require the company to be vigilant against copycats, he said.

Since 1991, Toho's attorneys have filed at least 32 copyright and trademark lawsuits and countless warning letters, gaining court injunctions in a quarter of the cases. Most others have resulted in settlement agreements that while confidential, result in products disappearing from the marketplace.

Since the late 1990s, Shephard has worked Toho cases with attorney Aaron Moss, whose high-end Century City office is cluttered with a mix of legal filings and official and unofficial Godzilla merchandise.

Some of the spoils of court victories include a now out-of-circulation copy of rapper Pharoahe Monch's 1999 album that improperly used Godzilla's theme music and a two-foot-tall dog toy called Tuffzilla.

"Toho is not out there to extract a pound of flesh," Moss said. "They need to protect their brand."

Both attorneys said they carefully evaluate when to file lawsuits, and Toho trusts their judgment. Litigation often starts with a cease-and-desist letter, and a company's reaction to it often determines whether the case escalates, they said.

"When you have something as famous as Barbie or as Godzilla, you're well-served to protect that," said Larry Iser, a partner at the Santa Monica, California-based firm Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert.

Iser represents toy maker Mattel and noted that trademarks for some popular products such as the trampoline and escalator have fallen into the public domain, making them easier and cheaper for companies to copy.

But Godzilla's trademarks could last forever if they're properly handled, Iser said.

Godzilla debuted in Japan in the 1954 hit film "Gojira" but has proven to be just as popular in the United States. That's made him an attractive spokesmonster.

He's appeared in ads for Snickers candy bars, Nike shoes, Doritos chips, as well as in marketing for the original "Simcity" computer game, Honda minivans, and Subway's "Five Dollar Footlong" specials. Yet those last three uses weren't properly licensed and prompted Toho to sue.

Godzilla's appearance in the 1991 Rose Parade sparked Toho's first court fight with Honda. Decked out in a tuxedo and top hat, American Honda's float was engineered to make it look like Godzilla was traipsing down the street.

The next day, Toho called Shephard. Godzilla's image hadn't been licensed for the float, and the ensuing lawsuit lasted more than a year before Godzilla finally prevailed. Honda denied that their float depicted Godzilla, despite advertisements and a memo about the float describing the creature by name.

It was one of many cases that featured what Moss calls "the dinosaur defense."

Defendants sometimes claim their products aren't Godzilla, but simply dinosaurs. It's a dubious argument, Moss said, because the products often feature a spiky spine similar to Godzilla's, or depict the creature in a cityscape. Godzilla may munch on cities, but dinosaurs didn't.

"It just doesn't work," Moss said. "Why does it breathe fire and stomp on cities?"

Godzilla has suffered one notable loss. In 1981 - before Shephard's firm was involved - a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit by Toho against Sears Roebuck & Co. filed over a line of trash bags the retailer had named "Bagzilla." The bag's use of a Godzilla-esque creature represented a "humorous caricature" and not a serious threat to Toho's business interests, the court ruled.

One ongoing fight for Godzilla's lawyers is against a Louisiana brewery, which is being sued over its Mechahopzilla beer line. The giant metal lizard on the beer's cans and tap handles is too similar to Godzilla's mechanical version, Mechagodzilla, Toho's lawyers argue. The brewery contends its beer is a parody and is relying in part on the Sears case.

Join the discussion

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brennemanbelkin May 17 2014 at 11:08 PM

"against a wine called Cabzilla that resulted in a winemaker being forced to dump its stock of Cabernet Sauvignon down the drain."

Did it ever occur to them to re-lable it?

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1 reply
danyelle.marks brennemanbelkin May 18 2014 at 9:42 AM

i was thinking the same thing.

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lgreg2001 May 17 2014 at 5:46 PM

I think it odd that the Japanese have a problem pronouncing the letter "L" yet they name their monster with 2 "L's" next to each other no less. Why didn't they just name him "Godzira" and make it easier

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3 replies
savannahswithgod May 17 2014 at 6:51 PM

A good lawyer sighting I would think would be rarer than seeing a Godzilla?

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1 reply
ttoozz savannahswithgod May 18 2014 at 12:08 AM

Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh - I have two good attorneys. I'm a Godzilla fan also - the new flik is worth the price of matinee admission. The flik maitains the character of the original and incorporates some elements of the fifties' sequels.

My attorneys did not go to law school, but read law the old way. Virginia and Kentucky still allow folk to read law as an alternative to going to law school. Laugh if you will, but the method turns out some of the best trial lawyers.

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1 reply
Steve ttoozz May 18 2014 at 2:17 AM

It is more than just reading; they must work for a law firm as a clerk AND bas the State Bar. It is not just "book learnin'"!!

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Hello, Mary May 18 2014 at 9:40 AM

When I saw the headline, I thought ...... Donald Sterling!!!!

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Odens Fist May 17 2014 at 5:56 PM

Mecha Hopzilla was clearly NOT an infringement on Godzilla.. What, The Japanese have the rights to ANY monster that can crush cities..?? More then 205 difference in appearance, and the spelling of the name as well. You don't OWN "ZILLA", go get your shine box squinty.

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1 reply
yak5750 Odens Fist May 18 2014 at 1:40 AM

Bet you haven't gone to law school. Anyway, why don't you come up with yuor own 'zilla thing and then send a letter to the law firm daring them to sue.

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cedlakec May 17 2014 at 8:24 PM

I fell in love with that lizard ever since he made an appearance on our shores. I have most of his movies and, even though my family doesn't share my film festivals, Godzilla has been with me in good times and bad. He is fun, resilient, and my hero!

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1 reply
yak5750 cedlakec May 18 2014 at 1:37 AM

The big guy needs to pay a visit to Illinois to get rid of all the trash. Anyone have a guess as to what profession, if you can it that, I'm referring to. Hints: Many have been in office a long time and more than a few have gone to prison.

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irishroyal317 May 18 2014 at 1:16 AM

Now THAT would be a gig worth going to law school for!

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conchcept May 17 2014 at 6:22 PM

One must use and defend intellectual property in order to own it. They have to sue.

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IBruzEZ May 18 2014 at 8:22 AM

What this sounds like is.... if you add "zilla" to anything, it belongs to them... which doesn't sound right to me.! Courts need to look a little harder on that one....

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geoff2u May 18 2014 at 7:46 AM


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1 reply
IBruzEZ geoff2u May 18 2014 at 8:21 AM

Look out.!! he will be after you for using the "zilla" name..!! lol.......

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