DAMARISCOTTA – Getting a certified letter from a lawyer is rarely a pleasant experience. But when the lawyer represents Godzilla, well, you know you’re in big, big trouble.
“I don’t want to hire lawyers. But I am ready to call their bluff,” said Sarah Burnham. “I mean do they really want to take this fight on? Do they really want to sue us?”
Apparently so. And here’s why.
For the past five years, Burnham and her husband, Jay Swett, have owned and operated a thriving lunch-and-dinner stand out of an old Frito-Lay delivery truck on Business Route 1 just north of picturesque downtown Damariscotta.
Its name: Grill Zilla BBQ.
Its motto: “So good it’s SCARY!”
Its logo: A smiling green creature with a red apron who, the way Burnham sees him, is part dinosaur, part alligator and part dragon. Or, as Swett sees him, “Tyrannosaurus rex on steroids.”
Either way, the lawyers for Toho Co. Ltd., a Japanese entertainment conglomerate that owns the rights to the 56-year-old movie icon Godzilla, recently took a long look at Grill Zilla BBQ and saw trademark infringement.
“Toho is concerned that your use of this character along with a name and mark which incorporate a portion of our client’s famous GODZILLA mark will cause consumers to believe that there is some association with, authorization by or sponsorship by our client,” wrote Jill A. Jacobs, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, in a letter to Swett and Burnham last March.
She was just warming up.
Jacobs wet on to request that Swett and Burnham not only deep-six their green mascot, but also stop using the name Grill Zilla “in connection with any ‘lizard-like’ or ‘reptile-like’ monsters or other monster designs or references to monsters or with any imagery or character depicted in a manner similar to the way in which Toho has depicted the GODZILLA character in its films.”
Had enough? Sorry, there’s more.
Lest Grill Zilla’s owners not quite grasp what she’s talking about, Jacobs went on the explain that Toho doesn’t want to look halfway around the world to the coast of Maine and see “a colossal character; in a cityscape with the character crushing or stomping on the city, buildings, cars, people, etc.; in any other setting where the character destroys cities, villages, or mountains; where the character breathes atomic fire; or where the character emerges from the ocean, water, etc.”
Noted Swett as he reviewed the letter for the umpteenth time Friday, “She’s probably getting paid by the word.”
For the record, Swett and Burnham insist that Grill Zilla is not, was not and never will be an imitation of the fictional monster that in 1954 arose from the radioactive rubble of post-World War II Japan and went on to star in more than three dozen films worldwide. (His mug, as his lawyer notes, also graces “a wide variety of goods and services.”)
Grill Zilla, on the other hand, grew out of a “naming party” Swett and Burnham held back when they started their barbecue business — one of the 20 or so friends who participated looked up at Swett and said, “Well gee, Jay, you’re huge, you’re a monster. Why don’t you call it Grill Zilla?”
“We liked it because it rhymed,” explained Burnham. “But we never named it after Godzilla.”
Doesn’t matter, at least to the lawyers.
A quick Internet search shows just how ferociously Seyfarth Shaw, which last week declined to comment on Grill Zilla, will defend Godzilla from any and all pretenders.
Back in 2002, the law firm forced the Adler Fels Winery in California’s Napa Valley to stop selling “Cabzilla,” a nice cabernet sauvignon that featured a menacing Godzilla on the label delicately raising a glass of the red wine with his right hand (or whatever that thing is at the end of his arm).
Two years ago, Godzilla’s keepers went after the owners of the Subway sandwich chain, which had snuck a short clip of a dinosaur tromping through skyscrapers into its television ad for the “Five-Dollar-Foot-Long” sandwich. The offending scene, which Seyfarth Shaw argued was clearly their guy in downtown Tokyo, vanished overnight.
Also in 2008, the lawyers set their sights on an Arizona rock band whose two-word name consisted of an obscenity starting with the letter “a” and the name Godzilla. “A—— Godzilla,” as well as its website, are no longer.
Then there’s the case of Hideki Matsui, who earned the nickname “Godzilla” during his seven seasons with the New York Yankees — not because he could annihilate a fastball, but because he actually bears a not-so-faint resemblance to the monster.
Toho Co. Ltd. couldn’t do anything about Matsui’s nickname (or the resemblance), but it did force the Yankees to stop selling Godzilla souvenirs in honor of their star outfielder.
The list goes on (Honda Motors once used Godzilla without permission on its Rose Parade float, Warner Bros. was caught sneaking the big guy into “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” Dave Linabury, a blogger from Minnesota, got crushed for naming his site “davezilla.com”…).
All of which means Grill Zilla should be worried. Very worried.
After a flurry of letters, telephone calls and e-mails with Swett and Burnham, attorney Jacobs finally told them they could lose the logo and keep the name or vice-versa. But, she warned, they had to do something by June 30.
Almost six weeks later, Burnham and Swett haven’t budged.
“I thought it would be easy,” said Burnham. “But if you get rid of the mascot, then the name doesn’t make sense. And if you change the name, the mascot doesn’t make sense. I can’t come up with anything that makes any sense.”
Lord knows she’s tried.
“Grill Zula” led the list of alternatives for a while because it could be accomplished easily with a black marker and a dab or two of Wite Out. But what the heck is a “zula?”
Swett thought “Grill Zillah” might give the business a Maine flavor, but Burnham said that just doesn’t work for her. (Nor, in all likelihood, would Godzilla sign off on it.)
They tried the opposite approach as well — keeping their spiky green mascot but turning his head into a barbecue smoker. Too weird.
So here they sit, waiting for the sound of footsteps.
The couple’s long-range plan was to sell the business sometime in the near future, buy a boat and sail around the world. But how do you attract a buyer when you’ve got the world’s most famous monster breathing down your neck?
Instead, they’re holding their ground for now, waiting for Godzilla to make his next move.
Their website, www.grillzillabbq.com, now depicts a smiling Grill Zilla offering a barbecued sausage to an anything-but-amused Godzilla over the words, “Godzilla vs. Grill Zilla!? The Day Godzilla Stomped into Town.”
This could get ugly.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org