Now You See Me, and Now You Don’t: A Brief History of the Unseen

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Hello again, Readers! Bert Bargo, here.

PGI has recently been working on enticing players from around the world to invest in the various package deals being offered as a part of the up and coming “Project Phoenix.” There has been a lot of confusion about what exactly happened between FASA Corporation/Battletech, Harmony Gold, and the legal battles that have gone down over in the past. As a result, I feel obligated to do some journalistic sleuthing and dig up information to help shine some light onto the situation.

I am willing to stand corrected if someone can make and prove claims as to what really happened behind the scenes, but here is what I’ve found out. I will cite my sources as a good journalist should and so let’s go start at the beginning!

  • I want to establish and make clear that this drama doesn’t concern PGI or IGP. Bryan Ekman and Russ Bullock own Piranaha Games. They are partnered with Jordan Weisman’s company Smith&Tinker. Weisman himself is one of the co-creators of Battletech.

In 1984, two gentlemen, Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock, established a tabletop game called Battledroids:  the very first edition of what was to shortly become BattleTech. George Lucas had, in fact, had trademarked the term “droid” and so Weisman and Babcock (henceforth known as FASA Corporation) were forced to change their game’s name from “-droid” to “-tech” and the individual units to “BattleMechs.” FASA had little money to begin with but Mort Weisman, Jordan’s father, sold his publishing business, added a bunch of cash to the endeavor and became the Operational Manager. As the months and years wore on, the tabletop game became more successful and so they began to diversify into video games and novels. FASA continued updating their series as its popularity grew and grew.

It’s an undeniable fact that FASA, in their early editions of Battletech spanning from 1984 to around 1996, contained copied designs for their battlemechs from a variety of mecha Animes. In the first edition of Battletech (AKA BattleDroids), the Stinger, Shadow Hawk, Archer, Griffin, Warhammer, Phoenix Hawk, Marauder, Crusader, Wasp, Rifleman and Merlin were all designs lifted wholesale from Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram and Crusher Joe. There wasn’t a single original design from the first edition: they were all borrowed.

That is one long list.

Why did FASA do this? Apparently, according to the legal documents, FASA thought that it did successfully acquire the rights to the various designs they took, be it from Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram or Crusher Joe. I’d just like to reiterate that FASA wasn’t purposefully stealing. Macross had supposedly belonged to “Twentieth Century Imports” whom FASA had purchased a license from. “TCI” allegedly obtained the rights from Japanese company Tatsunoko but, in reality, it had actually been Harmony Gold who had obtained the rights from Japan in January of 1984.

It’s almost admirable, all copyright issues aside, how FASA Corporation lifted the designs completely intact– They didn’t change anything about them. I made these comparison images quite large to highlight the extent of their similarities. Unfortunately, using these machines’ exact likenesses would inevitably come around to bite them in the upcoming years.

Blogger Chris Meadows indicates: “… FASA kept on using the designs, and Harmony Gold never filed any legal action against them. Probably at least part of this was because of a period of hibernation Harmony Gold went into during the late ’80s through early ’90s, in which they basically just rubber-stamped any Robotech-related tie-in that came across their desks.”

Nothing really exploded until the mid-1990s. These “borrowed” mechs suddenly disappeared entirely from the Battletech series — they had stopped being produced as physical models and as entries in the Tactical Readouts. FASA and other Battletech related groups were very tight lipped about why.

The first explanation comes from Author Randall N. Bills. According to Wikipedia: “No official broke the silence until 2007, after FASA had sold the BattleTech intellectual property to WizKids Games. Under license from them, the Classic BattleTech line developer for Fantasy Productions, Randall N. Bills explained that FASA had sued Playmates over the use of images owned by FASA, but received no compensation, even though Playmates was ordered to stop using the images in question.”

So according to Mr. Bills, it was FASA who had started this whole copyright mess?

Circa 1994, Playmates, a then-partner of Harmony Gold, had released a line of “ExO Squad Robotech” toys that were a kind of hybrid Macross and an American mecha series’ designs. I’m confused as to why Playmates tried to combine these two series, or at least their names: The only similarities they shared were that aliens invade and that trained pilots take robot suits into battle. In either show there was never any evidence of a crossover outside of the toy line.

Blogger Mr. Meadows once again states: “As FASA asserted in its filing [in 1994 –Auth.], the Exosquad storyline shares a remarkable number of similarities with BattleTech. FASA also pointed out that one of the Exosquad “e-frame” mecha strongly resembled aBattleTech Madcat, and the others resembled other BattleTech mechs.

There is absolutely no way that you can tell me this toy pictured here doesn’t really resemble a MadCat..

Ultimately, the Judge in the case determined that there weren’t enough facts to establish liability with Playmates and thus it was dropped.

However, after FASA’s attack against Playmates, Harmony Gold jumped onto the counter-offensive and went after FASA for their Macross-inspired units. It was here that Harmony Gold had finally had enough of FASA and took substantial action so that their new toy line could successfully take off.

Does this particular toy look familiar at all? It should.

The court papers from Harmony Gold vs FASA two years later from 1996 continue the drama:

On January 15, 1984, Tatsunoko [The Japanese owners of the Macross property –Auth.] granted plaintiff Harmony Gold U.S.A., Inc. (“Harmony Gold”) a license to market all products in the United States based on the Macross designs except for Japanese plastic model kits. Harmony Gold subsequently acquired co-ownership of the copyrights in both the original Macross designs and any [*3] derivative works. Harmony Gold has incorporated the Macross designs into an animated television series entitled “Robotech.” Additionally, Harmony Gold has marketed, through its sublicenses, a broad array of “Robotech” products including publications, actions figures and toys.

In or about 1984, defendant FASA created a fictional universe called “Battletech” which formed the basis for board games, role-playing games, novels, and game systems. The original “Battletech” game included both robotic images and model kits based on the Macross designs. FASA claims to have acquired the rights to these model kits and images from Twentieth Century Imports (“TCI”), which allegedly acquired them from Tatsunoko.

On January 31, 1985, FASA received a letter from Harmony Gold demanding that FASA cease all use of the Macross designs or risk a potential suit for copyright infringement and unfair competition. This letter sparked an exchange of correspondence between the parties including numerous cease and desist letters from Harmony Gold. Harmony Gold also demanded disclosure of the source of FASA’s alleged rights in the Macross designs.

On January 13, 1995, Harmony Gold and its exclusive licensee,  [*4]  Playmates Toys, Inc. (“Playmates”), filed the instant action against defendants FASA and one of its sister companies, VWE, alleging copyright infringement under United States copyright laws, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., false designation of origin in violation of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), deceptive trade practices in violation of the California Business & Professions Code Sections 17200 et seq., the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act, 815 ILCS 510/1 et seq., and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, 815 ILCS 505/1 et seq., and unfair competition under the common law. n1 Specifically, plaintiffs allege that defendants have unlawfully benefited from the use of the Macross designs which are the subject of copyrights owned and exploited by Harmony Gold and its exclusive licensee, Playmates.

Around this point, FASA must have thought: hey, taking completely unchanged robot designs from another series is a really, really bad idea; especially when a company might already have rights to their likenesses Stateside.

The Wikipedia article continues on: “After realizing how the use of licensed images made them vulnerable to lawsuits and afraid that such a suit would bankrupt the company, FASA made the decision to only use images owned by them and them alone.”

Macross and Harmony Gold was so much of a problem that, as a precaution, FASA boxed up the mech designs borrowed from Fang of the Sun Dougram and Crusher Joe in order to try and prevent more legal drama.

With that, the borrowed mechs that were taken from Anime series disappeared from store shelves and in technical readouts. All of those ‘classic’ first generation Battletech designs informally became “Unseen” for many years with very little official explanation from FASA. However, in the lore/fluff, these mechs’ names were still used in stories and other publications that didn’t feature pictures– they never vanished. This obviously makes sense because the entire issue concerning these mechs is their likenesses to established, licensed Animes.

Some five years passed by without too much incident but, in 2001 FASA suddenly closed their doors because they apparently felt that the genre was going downhill and wanted to get out of the game.

Wikipedia’s article on FASA Corporation sheds some light onto the situation:

“Mort Weisman [Jordan’s Father, Operational Manager of FASA] had been talking of retirement for some years and his confidence in the future of the paper-based games business was low. He considered the intellectual property of FASA to be of high value but did not wish to continue working as he had been for the last decade or more. Unwilling to wrestle with the complexities of dividing up the going concern, the owners issued a press release on January 25, 2001 announcing the immediate closure of the business.”

It was around that point that Microsoft obtained FASA Interactive, FASA Corporation’s video game department. This is why Mechcommander 2 and the Mechwarrior 4 games were so notably published by Microsoft, not to mention Mech Assault. FASA, however, did still exist as a corporation and they held onto the rights of Battletech and its various mechs to try and prevent more legal trouble and intellectual theft.

“When Microsoft acquired the FASA Interactive subsidiary [in 2001-2002 just in time for Mechcommander 2], [L. Ross] Babcock went with that company. After the sale of Virtual World, Jordan [Weisman] turned his attention to the founding of a new games venture called WizKids.”

Wizkids. Does that ring any bells? Weisman continued with his tabletop Battletech/Mechwarrior gaming and brought us the Mechwarrior: Dark Age series among other products in that timeline.

In the early 2000s, Wizkids suddenly released the Project Phoenix: Technical Readout.” In the book, Wizkids and Randall N. Bills established a canon explanation as to why these ‘Unseen Mechs’ had been redesigned and, as a result of their ‘modern upgrades,’ their appearances changed somewhat (as to dodge legal troubles, naturally).

Check out the Old vs New Battlemasters. puts it best: “These ‘Mechs remained unseen until the publication of Technical Readout: Project Phoenix, which presented “redesigns,” allowing them to be used freely once again.”

On a similar but different note: it’s also important to remind everyone why Harmony Gold reared its ugly head once more back in 2009. Apparently the Warhammer featured in the Mechwarrior trailer wasn’t redesigned/modified sufficiently and that ruffled some feathers. Harmony Gold wasted no time in bringing out tons of DCM takedowns of the trailer. However, since Mechwarrior Online hasn’t been using any Macross-inspired designs, there shouldn’t be a problem.

So, perhaps as long as the mechs’ designs are sufficiently altered, maybe PGI will begin offering and releasing even more Reseen mechs in the future? I for one am very excited at the possibility of these classic designs being introduced and I can’t wait to see what could be released next.

Who knows what the future will bring?


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