Did You Know? Tale of the Unseen ‘Mechs

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From the very beginning, BattleTech has been a game with a lot of controversy. Even the first edition name landed BattleTech in hot water. But another fateful decision would cast a long shadow over the fledgling universe, one that only recently has been put to rest. What I refer to is known colloquially as the Unseen ‘Mechs.

Cue spooky music.

Many of you older MechWarriors recall (or remember from our previous article) that the original ‘Mechs featured in BattleTech were actually all taken from Japanese anime, namely Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Crusher Joe. While these cartoons were middling at best, the mechas they featured were something the West had never seen before, and this novelty drew the owners of FASA to license the imagery from Twentieth Century Imports for use in their robot-inspired tabletop game.

That was 1984, the year the first edition of BattleTech (then called Battledroids) would be made. All seemed well at first; sales of the game were solid, and plans were already being made to expand the universe and release a second edition. Then, FASA got a letter in the mail from another company called Harmony Gold. The letter said they owned the rights to the mechas that FASA thought they licensed from Twentieth Century Imports, and they had to cease all use immediately.

Then, in 1985, a new show started appearing on TV called Robotech, which had robots that looked strikingly similar to the ones featured in BattleTech.

But it was the 1980’s, nobody had really ever heard of Macross, and FASA crumpled up that letter and threw it in the garbage. OK, we don’t know if they literally threw it in the garbage, but they essentially ignored it – at least, at first. Then, in 1985, a new show started appearing on TV called Robotech, which was essentially Macross recut and rebranded for the more refined American pallet, and wouldn’t you know, it had robots that looked strikingly similar to the ones featured in BattleTech.

Then, FASA got another letter from Harmony Gold, again saying they owned the rights to those ‘Mechs, and they had to pull them from their games. Now FASA was paying attention, and according to court documents, this “sparked an exchange of correspondence between the parties, including numerous cease and desist letters from Harmony Gold.” That exchange can be boiled down to a he-said, she-said where Harmony Gold argued they bought the rights to the Macross images, to which FASA countered by saying they owned them since they bought them a year earlier from Twentieth Century Imports. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In fact this went on for nearly a decade, and while there was a lot of animosity between the two companies, nobody was willing to sue. That is until 1994, when another company, Playmates, came out with a line of toys that looked suspiciously familiar.

Exosquad was a short-lived cartoon for which Playmates made little robot action figures. FASA had previously pitched the idea of a line of similar BattleTech-themed toys to Playmates, along with supporting sketches, but Playmates turned them down. Then, Playmates decided to throw a Timberwolf-esque design into their Exosquad line of toys.

That was enough for FASA, and they sued Playmates for copyright infringement, arguing the new toy line infringed on exclusive imagery owned and produced in-house. From the hindsight of 2017, it’s pretty easy to see that toy rather strongly resembles a Timberwolf. However, to a circa 1994 judge’s eyes, deciding a case between two long-feuding companies, the similarities weren’t enough, and the case was dismissed.

One good lawsuit deserves another though, and in a legal bait-and-switch, Playmates brought in Harmony Gold, who were all too eager to counter-sue FASA for copyright violations of their Macross-sourced imagery. “How’d they manage that?”, you ask. Well, Playmates also made a line of toys for Robotech, and they got their Macross image license from – you guessed it – Harmony Gold.

This case looked like it could go badly for FASA – having purchased the rights from Twentieth Century Imports meant that they were once removed from the original art production company, while Harmony Gold had gone straight to the Tatsunoko art studio to secure the rights for themselves.

However, part of that settlement meant that FASA could no longer use the ‘Mechs that were sourced from Macross.

Things were looking grim for our heroes, but lady luck was on FASA’s side. In a series of legal slip-ups, Harmony Gold provided FASA’s lawyers with quite a few letters during discovery that brought into question Harmony Gold’s sole ownership of the rights to Macross. The legal waters having been sufficiently muddied, Harmony Gold decided to settle rather than go to trial.

However, part of that settlement meant that FASA could no longer use the ‘Mechs that were sourced from Macross. This meant the end for the Wasp, Stinger, Phoenix Hawk, Crusader, Warhammer, Longbow, Rifleman, Marauder, and Archer.

The whole ordeal had left a foul taste in their mouths, so FASA didn’t stop at just Macross. They decided to end use of any art produced out-of-house for their ‘Mechs, which meant even the non-Marcoss ‘Mechs had to go. Thus, in 1996, the era of the Unseen ‘Mechs began.

For long-time BattleTech fans, it was a hard blow. Many had grown up with these ‘Mechs, and to have them yanked away was devastating.

Things stayed in that sad state for a long time. In 2001, FASA closed their doors and sold all their intellectual property, making the rebirth of these classics even more unlikely. But in 2003, a light shown from above on the poor Unseen. FanPro had purchased the license to the BattleTech tabletop game, and decided to bring back the Unseen ‘Mechs in a Technical Readout called Project: Phoenix.

Catalyst Game Labs would take up the mantle of BattleTech’s champions in 2007 and continue the fight for the Unseen.

Just because FASA wasn’t around didn’t mean that FanPro could start using the original Macross images though. To abide by the court settlement, they made brand new art based loosely on the original designs, but updated to match the technology used in 3067. While they weren’t quite the classics everybody remembered, the old boys were back, and better than ever.

Still, the pull of nostalgia is a strong one, and die-hard fans really wanted their old designs back. Catalyst Game Labs would take up the mantle of BattleTech’s champions in 2007 and continue the fight for the Unseen. In June 2009, for a brief, shining moment, it seemed like they’d secured the Unseen’s release, but those hopes were quickly dashed in August when they released a similar statement saying they may have spoken too soon.

For 6 more years the saga of the Unseen lingered on, until finally in 2015, Catalyst Games announced they would re-release the Unseen, this time with new art as true to the originals as they legally could make them. Considering the original art often seemed like it was drawn in pen on the back of a napkin (I kid, they have a delightful 80’s aesthetic), while the new art was clean, crisp, and often more closely corresponded with technical specifications, fans were pretty pleased with the new art, and the BattleTech community rejoiced. The Unseen had finally come home.

Now in 2017, it seems the tale of the Unseen ‘Mechs has finally come to a close. The Unseen have returned to the fold, and can be found in everything from the Alpha Strike table top game to MechWarrior Online, to yet to be released BattleTech and MechWarrior 5. We here at Sarna are certainly glad to have them back.

I should have the broad strokes right, but court documents from the 90’s can be hard to dig up. Got any juicy tidbits I missed?  Leave a reply in the comments!

This entry was posted in Art, Historical on by .

About Sean

Hooked on BattleTech at an early age, Sean honestly can't remember whether it was the cartoon, the serial novels or the short-lived TCG that did him in. Whatever it was, his passion for giant shooty robots never died, so now he writes about the latest and greatest in 'Mech related news.

16 thoughts on “Did You Know? Tale of the Unseen ‘Mechs

  1. Frabby

    Good summary. The article glosses over some of the legal battles and participants in what was one big legal mess. I’ve been told the Unseen lawsuit(s) are taught in IP law classes these days, and even judge Castillo went on to have a distinguished career.
    I think I saw some inaccuracies also, but I’m traveling right now. Will maybe post more comments at a later point.

    Reply
  2. Pht

    Comments from a non-lawyer but still, someone who’s read the docs (and I am very interested to see those letters you found … NEAT!)

    Playmates toys was not a subsidary of harmony gold.

    What happened (per the court docs [found on kampen’s site]) is that fasa pitched a BT toy line to playmates; this included fasa delivering a packet of I gather visuals and such of BT mechs and such, maybe more, not sure. Playmates declined to make the proposed BT toys for fasa, *but they kept the packet from fasa.*

    Afterwards the ripoff of the madcat you have a picture of showed up, so fasa decided to pursue the matter in court with playmates.

    So far, there was NO involvement with HG in this FASA v. Playmates toys thing.

    At some point in the process of the case, Playmates toys found and brought in HG in the whole mess, resulting in HG v. FASA. “Hey, look, HG has been bickering with fasa over these toys we’re in a lawsuit over … is how I think it happened.”

    In fasa V playmates it was found that the madcat you see wasn’t a ripoff on the madcat (on a technicality as far as I can sort the legalese) but that FASA had protectible trade dress (google it). Neither side won or lost.

    Anyways, the interesting part of this whole mess is that twenteith century imports and HG both “got rights” to the macross stuff from (IIRC!!!) Tatsunoko. Making it messier, tatsunoko was determined by court cases in japan to *not have those rights.*

    Reply
    1. Sean Post author

      I think you’re right, Playmates wasn’t a subsidiary, but they WERE a licensee of HG for Robotech toys, so that’s likely why they brought in HG to the whole legal kerfuffle. So slight correction to the article will be needed.

      Good find, thanks for the correction :)

      Reply
  3. Alex

    I think you spoke too soon in saying that they’re back. It’s been darn near three years since we’ve seen the War hammer and CGL still won’t give IWM clearance to make it.

    Reply
  4. Chris Hockabout

    Macross and Crusher Joe “middling at best?”

    Kinda leaves me wondering if you actually watched either the series or the movie (or OVA).

    Reply
    1. Sean Post author

      I did see both Macross cartoon and movie, the movie was OK, but the show was just awful. Horrifically misogynistic, even for the 80s. It had nothing on Cowboy Bebop or Trigun.

      Reply
      1. deMontHault

        How do you feel these “middling at best” anime compare to BattleTech: The Animated Series?

        Reply
        1. Sean Post author

          BattleTech the animated series was a monument to the arts, a shining beacon to contemporary cartoons that featured some of the earliest examples of computer animation that added depth and realism to what would otherwise be mere splashes of moving ink!

          I kid; it was a Saturday morning cartoon that had big stompy robots. I really didn’t need much else than that :P Although I did go back and watch the cartoon recently and found it to have some surprisingly adult themes. Probably one of the reasons why it was cancelled after just 1 season.

          Reply
      2. Bishop Steiner

        Macross had many flaws, typical of anime of the time… but really…Cowboy BeBop and Trigun? I’m guessing you were a child of the 90s. Get past the stupid tropes (which I admit may be hard) in Macross and you still have a groundbreaking space opera….

        Though in another unpopular opinion… as much as I hate the legal shenanigans of HG… I actually felt Robotech as a story line vastly improved Macross.

        That said Dougram and Votoms were superior to either…. Macross just had cooler Mecha.

        That nit picked, otherwise a rather nice write up condensing the soap opera of the Unseen into an at least relatively understandable breakdown.

        Reply
  5. Cannon_Fodder

    Exo Squad is what got me into BattleTech. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised it’s kind of a bastard child of BattleTech!

    Reply
  6. Lamont Cranston

    I never knew that about Exo Squad, did that appear in the cartoon?

    There’s been a few near misses elsewhere, the soldiers on Field Manual Updates are wearing the armor from Starship Troopers, the original tro3026 looks like its lifted from Star Wars Juggernaut Assault Vehicle.

    Reply
  7. JamesDixon

    You missed the part where Big West and Studio Nue (the financial backer and animation studio that created Macross) sued Tatsunoko Production for copyright infringement in the late 2000’s. The case ended up in the Japanese Supreme Court and they ruled that Tatsunoko Production only has the worldwide distribution rights for the animation with all other rights remaining with Studio Nue.

    What this means is that under the Berne Convention, the license from Tatsunoko and HG is invalid as Tatsunoko assigned exclusive rights it didn’t have to HG for the animation to merchandising. Those rights are held by Studio Nue and their license with Twentieth Century Imports and FASA are legal. All it takes now is for Microsoft or a company that produces works based on the BT IP to sue HG in US courts. The US courts have to use Japanese copyright law and the ruling of the Japanese Supreme Court due to both Japan and the US being signatories to it. There goes HG’s hold on the Unseen Robotech mechs and the license for Crusher Joe/Dougram for the art can be redone.

    Reply

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