The last six years have been a real renaissance for the Macross franchise in Japan. There has been an incredibly popular anime series, three movies, and seven games. The latest in the series is the incredibly ambitious Macross 30, a game that combines 30 years of Macross characters and lore into a new and original story. It was released late last month in Japan to modest critical and commercial success. Yet of all the titles brought to market in recent years, none of them have ever been released in America.
Those anime fans born in the 80s or 90s are likely to know about the original Macross anime, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, through its adaptation into the first story arc of Robotech. But while The Super Dimension Fortress Macross was combined with other visually similar anime to create Robotech, the other four main Macross series were never molded into Robotech and remain their own separate series. Several other parts of the franchise were released in the nineties but since then, no new Macross anime or games have come out in the US.
The reason for this is simple: legal troubles.
[*Note: I am not a lawyer nor have I studied trademark/licensing law in any capacity. This is simply a recounting of what I turned up in my research and what I believe the implications are for the foreseeable future. Of course, any corrections are welcome.]
To explain the legal issues, you first need to know a little bit about how the original Macross series was made. Back when The Super Dimension Fortress Macross anime was greenlit in the early 80s, three companies were involved in its production: Studio Nue, Big West, and Tatsunoko Productions. Studio Nue and Big West were partners, with Studio Nue providing the story, characters designs, etc., and Big West the financial backing. Tatsunoko Productions was brought on board to produce the bulk of the actual animation. As part of its payment, Tatsunoko received the rights to the physical animation of the original The Super Dimension Fortress Macross anime (but not characters, concepts, designs, etc.) as well as the rights to distribute the anime series—and related merchandise—outside of Japan.
Enter the American company Harmony Gold. Back in 1984, Harmony Gold purchased the international distribution rights to The Super Dimension Fortress Macross—as well as the rights to the series' merchandise—for use in the creation of Robotech.
For over a decade, everything was normal for Macross—at least on the anime side anyway. Robotech aired on TV, Celebrity Home Entertainment released the film Macross: Do You Remember Love?—in a heavily edited fashion—as Clash of the Bioroids in the late 1980s, U.S. Renditions released Macross II in 1992, and Manga Entertainment released Macross Plus in 1999.
However, in order to curb the importation and sale of Japanese Macross merchandise by other companies in the early 2000s, Harmony Gold contacted these import companies explaining that Harmony Gold's licensing agreement with Tatsunoko Productions granted them the exclusive rights to all Macross-related merchandise—including merchandise from sequel Macross series like Macross Plus. In fact, one such cease and desist letter said the following:
"Harmony Gold's exclusive rights extend, without limitation, to the distribution of the Macross television series and the right to create and authorize the sale of merchandise based on such series."
Now here's where it gets confusing. Does "the Macross television series" in the above sentence refer to the single series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross or every Macross series? (The word "series" is already plural, meaning that both of the previous meanings are equally valid). And as they demanded that import companies stop selling Macross Plus figures, the latter interpretation—that they own the entire franchise outside of Japan—is clearly implied.
Also backing up this interpretation is that between the years of 1999 and 2003, Harmony Gold filed several trademarks on the Macross name, covering everything from the home and online distribution to every conceivable piece of merchandise.
[*Note: Kotaku reached out to Harmony Gold for clarification on this point—whether they claim to own the entire Macross franchise or just The Super Dimension Fortress Macross—but as of yet have received no reply. If and when we receive a response, this article will be updated.]
Of course, there's only one problem should Harmony Gold really be claiming that they own the international rights to the whole Macross franchise: They don't.
Why? Because Tatsunoko Productions, from whom they purchased the international rights for The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, didn't have the ability to sell the rights to the whole franchise. As if to confirm this, Studio Nue, Big West, and Tatsunoko filed a series of copyright lawsuits in Japan to reiterate which company owned what in the early 2000s. The result reaffirmed that everything was exactly as it had always been: Studio Nue and Big West co-own the characters, story, etc., and resulting franchise, while Tatsunoko owns the original footage and international licensing rights for the anime and merchandise of The Super Dimension Fortress Macross but not the rest of the franchise—which they had no involvement in making. Thus in turn, Harmony Gold owns the international licensing rights for the anime and merchandise of the original The Super Dimension Fortress Macross which it purchased from Tatsunoko—but nothing from the franchise after that.
So if this was all cleared up in Japanese courts by 2005, why haven't we seen any new Macross in America in the time since then? Simple. Harmony Gold's official stance is that the Japanese court case has no bearing on them nor their Macross distribution rights. Moreover, neither Big West nor Tatsunoko have challenged Harmony Gold's Macross trademark claim in the U.S., and so it remains in place.
Basically, this trademark effectively prevents any other company from purchasing the international distribution rights to any Macross product—be that anime, game, or merchandise—without inviting a lawsuit.
And lest you think the legal ramifications only effect the U.S., Ollie Barder, game designer and mecha expert, asked a French anime distributor about the issues surrounding Macross a few years back. This distributor wanted to bring Macross to Europe, but ran into a similar legal mess.
So until the day Big West or Taktsunoko assert their side of the story in American courts—and possibly those in other countries, Harmony Gold is in de facto control of the Macross franchise outside of Japan. And that is why, despite Macross' ongoing popularity in Japan, it has been absent from the rest of the world for over a decade.
For more information and links on the whole situation, check out this thread on Macross World.