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Points of Articulation

yo go re
yo go re
Mattel is Not Losing the MOTU License in 2023

In a recent review, we brought up the big surge in MotU product has been putting out lately, which prompted someone to say it's because they company is losing the license in 2023. It's possible that was the first time you ever heard this, if you're lucky; the rumor has been circulating since 2017, and we've very pointedly never mentioned it here: as we've seen with Qanon, Pizzagate, anti-vax hysteria... any Conservative "thinking" point, really... attempting to discredit a rumor really only serves to spread it to new audiences. So rather than help propagate it, we just deplatformed the idea instead.

But, as 2023 grows closer, fans are talking about it more, making it hard to ignore. So if they're going to bring it up, we're finally going to have to shoot it down.

Like we said, this rumor's been around since 2017. On January 2, Scott Neitlich started a thread about the end of MattyCollector.com. In between fondly remembering his own contributions and blaming fan complaints for somehow taking resources away from fixing things, Scott dropped this bomb:

And for the record, Mattel does not own MOTU. Universal does. So this was not a case of supporting owned IP. Like DC or CARS we paid royalties etc... and did our best with the resources we had.

Uh, what? Excuse me? Mattel literally created Masters of the Universe, how could they not own it?

The next day, Emiliano Santalucia offered this:

I've been putting together packaging for some MOTU products not later than a few weeks ago, and the legal line I put there still says: 
"MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and associated trademarks are owned and used under license from Mattel, Inc. © 2016 Mattel, Inc. 
All Right Reserved. Under license to Classic Media."

Now, Emiliano has definitely had his fair share of problems with Scott, but he does still work with Mattel, which is more than we can say for Neitlich (remember, he moved to Jakks Pacific in 2014, then Jada Toys in 2016, and Lootcrate in 2017, so he was already three jobs removed from Matty before starting this thread). A few hours later, Scott replied:

Mattel has first rights/options to toys and games and the right to say "copyright Mattel" on toy product until 2023. After that all rights including entertainment and all consumer product (including toys) rights revert fully to Universal. With the exception of live action motu rights which are with Sony until 2019.

The two of them then go back and forth about copyright vs. ownership, and Scott comes in with the claim that

Mattel sold the rights in the 90's. We paid a royalty on every motuc figure. I know because I ran the P&L. The only odd loophole was letting Mattel still use the copyright line. But even that goes away in 2023.

This supposed bombshell did eventually get some attention at He-Man.org, where Scott said

After 2023, Universal gets it all which means Hasbro (or anyone) can bid to make He-Man toys.

So that was the entirety of the sourcing on this rumor: Scott Neitlich's memories of a job he (in his own words) was doing in his spare time. Three years after the fact. We do all remember when Scott was with Mattel, right? And nobody believed him when he told us anything? So why would we start believing him now? Let's try to figure out what he thinks he's talking about.

For instance: in that thread, Scott said the MotU rights were sold to Hallmark in the '90s, which is demonstrably false. Filmation's animation library was sold to Hallmark, but that's it, and it's not something Mattel ever owned. Filmation did. And, thanks to a very savvy contract signed by Lou Scheimer, Filmation retained the rights to anything they created - remember early in the line, when MotU Classics couldn't do anything Filmation related? And all the annoyance that caused for us fans? It's because Mattel would have had to pay money to [Filmation] to use that stuff, and they (in this case meaning Mattel Corporate, not the MotU team) didn't want to spend more than they had to.

We put Filmation in brackets there for a reason, which means it's time for an aside! You know how the entire point of the "begats" section in the Bible is to prove a connection between whatever character you're reading about now and important characters of the past? Like saying "yes, Jesus is descended from King David, he could totally be the Messiah"? Prepare yourself for a long list of corporate acquisitions, the begats of the business world.

Filmation, as a studio, was bought by the TelePrompTer Corporation in 1969; in 1981, a division of Westinghouse bought all TelePrompTer's entertainment properties, including Filmation; in 1989, Westinghouse sold Filmation to a group of investors led by French cosmetics company L'Oréal, but before the sale was complete, Westinghouse shut the studio down, meaning L'Oréal only got the intellectual property and animation library - the ideas for things, and the cartoons themselves.

In 1995, L'Oréal sold it all to Hallmark. Hallmark held the former Filmation stuff until 2004, when they were sold to the confusingly named Entertainment Rights. (An interesting side note within this side note: from 1998 to 2005, Entertainment Rights owned Siriol Productions, a company that had been cofounded by Mike Young - the same Mike Young of "Mike Young Productions," the company who did the 2002 MotU cartoon. Coincidental!) Moving on.

In 2007, Entertainment Rights bought a company called Classic Media. In 2009, Boomerang Media (founded by the two original founders of Classic Media) bought Entertainment Rights and, showing some brand loyalty to their old creation, used the Classic Media name for their new subsidiary. (Kind of like how ToyBiz bought Marvel, then changed its own name to Marvel and started a new section of the company called ToyBiz.) Classic Media was bought by DreamWorks Animation in 2012, and renamed DreamWorks Classics. When NBCUniversal bought DreamWorks in 2016, DreamWorks Classics went with it, and in 2019 NBCUniversal changed the division's name back to Classic Media.

Whew! That was confusing, wasn't it? The short version is we put "Filmation" in brackets up there because that was a simple shorthand for "whoever owns the Filmation library at this point." In 2002, paying [Filmation] would have meant paying Hallmark; in 2008, when MotUC started, paying [Filmation] would have meant paying Entertainment Rights; in 2017, when Scott posted his take, paying [Filmation] would have meant paying NBCUniversal. And whoever those brackets represent, Mattel has to pay them for anything Filmation created, which means things like Orko, or the entire She-Ra side of the brand. But it also means they only own those things (and the old cartoon itself, of course), not the characters introduced elsewhere.

At some point in the '90s, Mattel did sell the MotU entertainment rights to Hallmark, which were presumably then bundled with the Filmation library into one big MotU bundle that has been getting passed along through all these companies as one solid thing. But "entertainment rights" does not include the right to make toys, nor is it the same as intellectual property rights. Whatever company owns the entertainment rights has the right (duh) to do any entertainment-related (double duh) things they want. Games, movies, TV shows, novels, stage musicals, travelling puppet shows, whatever at all... but not toys, because those are physical objects, not storytelling. And not, say, apparel, because that's just the character likenesses. Mattel still owns the characters and their distinct appearances, even if NBCUniversal owns the entertainment rights.

For instance, in the 2018/19 Injustice vs. Masters of the Universe comic from DC, the legal indicia says "© Mattel, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Under license to DreamWorks Animation Publishing, LLC." It means Mattel licensed the characters to DreamWorks Animation Publishing, who then further allowed DC Comics to use them in the crossover story. Neither Mattel nor DreamWorks could have given DC permission alone, because it required both halves of the license: characters and entertainment rights. And Mattel had to pay licensing fees to Hallmark in 2002 for the MYP cartoon, because Hallmark at the time was the company who owned the right to create cartoons, even if they weren't creating this specific one (that wasn't public knowledge at the time, but Emiliano Santalucia let us in on that one).

He also told us how, in 2010, Mattel began a relationship with Classic Media where CM would be MotU's licensing agent - in other words, the ones in charge of getting the characters out there. Mattel makes the toys, the licensing agent deals with everyone who wants to make anything else. Anything that's not classified as "entertainment" is, in marketing parlance, "consumer goods." He-Man birthday card? Skeletor balloon? Man-At-Arms branded mustache wax? Evil-Lyn home butthole bleaching kit? Instead of Mattel having to meet with every little company and approve every step of every product along the way, the licensing agent does it for them: they still answer to Mattel, because Mattel still owns the brand. Mattel owns "Masters of the Universe" as a concept. Another company owns the rights to make entertainment media based on that concept (as of this writing, NBCUniversal. Which is why this year's Hallmark Keepsake ornament, Castle Grayskull, says "MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE(TM) and associated trademarks are owned by and used under license from Mattel, Inc. © 2021 Mattel, Inc. Under license to Classic Media," because that's the name Universal uses for the process).

2021 Castle Grayskull ornament

  • Lucasfilm owned Star Wars. Dark Horse owned the rights to make Star Wars comics. That did not mean Dark Horse owned Star Wars.
  • Marvel owns Spider-Man. Sony owns the right to make Spider-Man movies. That does not mean Sony owns Spider-Man.
  • Mattel owns MotU. Universal owns the right to make MotU cartoons. That does not mean Universal owns MotU.

Judging by the copyrights, the licensing agent agreement has transferred right along with all the other rights: that's why the Injustice comic named DreamWorks (before Universal changed the name back to Classic Media). Is that a permanent agreement, or was it just for a long enough span of years that it still belongs with whoever owns the company now? That we don't know, and wouldn't without being able to look at the contracts. But either way, it's been 10 years and counting of the same company being in charge of it. And while they were doing their licensing, to companies like Funko or Mondo or even something that doesn't end in O, the merch money was coming in and proving to Mattel that consumers still care about the brand, and maybe they should be making their own money off it, not just secondhand scraps. And thus, we get big new pushes with the brand, new cartoons and new toys and new Hot Topic T-shirts.

(For the record, Classic Media isn't Mattel's only licensing agent, even for He-Man: the London-based Born Licensing has gotten Masters of the Universe characters into several deeply weird British commercials, and Classic Media had nothing to do with it.)

Now, don't take any of this to mean Scott Neitlich was lying, or trying to mislead us or confuse the issue: there's no need to ascribe malace where simple ignorance would do. Scott isn't a lawyer. And he hadn't worked on the brand at all for years before his post. It's extremely likely that he confused "we had to pay extra fees to make all those Princess of Power toys right at the end of the line" with "we had to pay extra fees on everything all the time forever." But no matter how many times he repeats the false story that Mattel is losing the license in 2023, and no matter how many times fans bring it up, it's simply not true. The facts don't line up.

Mattel is not losing the Masters of the Universe license in 2023, because they own it. They own it and they always have. They've never sold it off to anyone. Nobody else is getting the opportunity to bid on it, unless they're going to be paying that money to Mattel like every smaller toy company has done in the last couple years. So stop spreading fake rumors, ya dinguses!

And if you want to call yourself a toy guru, you'd better know what you're talking about and have the receipts to back it up.

(This PoA is going to be hilarious if in two years it turns out we were wrong. So we'll make you a bet: if we were wrong, and Mattel does lose it, you owe us $10. Apiece. That'll show us!)

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