Go Go Godzilla!: Don’t Mess with Toho Co, They Protect Their Mark Fiercely

By Laurel Sutton

August 7, 2009

godzilla1My friend Joe Murray at Doremus just sent me a link to this great article at Salon about the use of “Godzilla” as a trademark, and how Toho Co Ltd., the owners of the mark, will sue the tails off anyone who uses it without their permission. They’ve gone after (and won against) a Napa wine called Cabzilla, vendors at Yankee stadium selling inflatable dinosaurs in honor of the Japanese baseball player Hideki Matsui, who is nicknamed “Godzilla”, an Arizona rock band called Asshole Godzilla, Subway (who used a Godzilla-like animated dino in a TV ad), and even Honda (for using an unauthorized Godzilla float in the Rose Parade.

Think it’s unfair?

“As a trademark owner, one of the requirements is to police your mark to ensure that it does not become generic, that it does not become a common word for any fire-breathing monster,” says Aaron Moss, a Toho attorney in Los Angeles. “If you don’t, the trademark becomes devalued and hard to enforce.”

That policing is a full time job, in part because of Godzilla’s uniquely embedded place in U.S. culture. Unlike E.T., the Predator or the slimy extraterrestrial from Alien, Godzilla is often regarded by the public as community property. People don’t understand or believe that the character that first appeared in a Japanese black-and-white in 1954 is a closely guarded piece of intellectual property, and rarely do suspected infringers know that Godzilla’s movie music and pictures are copyrighted, and that his distinctive features and name are trademarked.

As this illustration shows, Godzilla isn’t just an upright T-Rex. He’s significantly different physically, and, as far as we know, actual dinosaurs didn’t have radioactive breath that made their spinal ridges light up. He’s a unique creation, still making money 55 years after he first appeared, and Toho needs to keep him from the dreaded fate of genericization. And that’s part of the reason they haven’t gone after Mozilla – as a non-profit, it’s unlikely to divert any cash that might go to Toho.

This kind of information is invaluable to namers. When we’re doing preliminary trademark screens for a new name, it’s useful to know which companies are litigious – that is, they protect their trademarks vigilantly and aren’t about to allow a small user to slip by. Add Toho to the list!

Most people think of Godzilla as a guy in a silly suit, but that’s not how he started. If you have the chance, I highly recommend that you seek out the original movie with English subtitles and no Raymond Burr. It’s a scary vision of what might come from experiments with nuclear energy, a suspenseful horror-drama that’s every bit as powerful today as it was in the era of post-war Japan. In the immortal words of Blue Oyster Cult, “History shows again and again/How nature points up the folly of men”. I leave you with a video of that classic song. (Incidentally, BOC paid Toho a licensing fee to use the name!)

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