The Sega vs. Taito Trademark Dispute: Why Sonic was Rebranded as SegaSonic in Japanese Arcades

Recently, a post on the SonicRetro forums asked why early Sonic goods were marked “SegaSonic.” You’ve probably seen this if you’ve ever come across the plethora of stationary, clothes, stuffed animals, and other goods that Sega released in the early ‘90s in Japan:

A notebook featuring the SegaSonic branding.

Initially, goods were labeled as “Sonic the Hedgehog,” but at some point around the start of 1992, this changed to “SegaSonic the Hedgehog.” You can see both brandings on these stuffed animals:

The earlier-released stuffed animals have “Sonic” branding, while the later-released have “SegaSonic.”

This watch even has both brandings on the same item:

The watch on the left has both brandings.

The same watch, out of the package, with both brandings visible.

Sega also released an arcade game in mid-1993 titled SegaSonic the Hedgehog, as well as a series of arcade attractions and even a popcorn machine branded with “SegaSonic.”

SegaSonic the Hedgehog flyer.

SonicRetro forum user Pengi posted a quote from Manabu Kusunoki, which was published in the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, Vol. 3. Kusunoki was a designer on SegaSonic the Hedgehog. He stated:

JS: Let’s discuss your next game, SegaSonic the Hedgehog from 1993…

MK: The title was originally in development as Sonic the Hedgehog but, during development, Sega lost the “Sonic” trademark. We were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to use the “Sonic” title, so we added the “Sega” part and that’s how we ended up with “SegaSonic”. After that, I believe they cleared up the trademark dispute, and that’s why only the arcade version ended up as SegaSonic. But that’s just my conjecture.

JS: Sega didn’t own the Sonic the Hedgehog trademark?

MK: I don’t really know the details. They certainly own it now, but at the time there was some dispute involving the “Sonic” part, and out of an abundance of caution, we changed the title. That was the situation we were dealing with at the time.

So what exactly happened? Was there really a trademark dispute over “Sonic”?

I did some digging in a Japanese trademark database, and I found that Sega did indeed have a trademark dispute with none other than arcade rival Taito.

Sega first filed a trademark application for “Sonic” on December 7, 1990. This was about six months before the release of the first Genesis game. This application covered a (very) wide range of products, such as fire extinguishers, ozonators, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, including arcade video games.

Then, three days later on December 10, 1990, Taito filed a trademark application for its arcade game Sonic Blast Man. The application included a trademark on the word “Sonic” in relation to arcade video games and machines. Sonic Blast Man was a punching game released sometime in 1990 (a different game by the same name was also released on the SNES). The arcade game can be seen in action here:

The timing suggests that Taito was taking action to protect its arcade game, which was likely already out in arcades at that point. It should be noted that Taito’s trademark application only covered arcade video games and machines and did not make any mention of merchandising or home consoles.

At that time in Japan, trademark applications typically took two to three years to receive approval.

Fast-forward one year to December 11, 1991: Sega filed another trademark application, this time for “SegaSonic.” This application also covered a wide range of products, including arcade games.

On June 30, 1993, Taito’s initial trademark application was approved, but all references to “arcade video game” had been removed. The approved trademark only covered arcade punching games, arcade medal games, arcade coin pusher games, and UFO catcher crane games.

Eventually, on September 30, 1996 (almost six years later!), Sega’s initial application was approved for arcade video games.

These trademark filings show that Sega and Taito were in dispute over the ownership of the “Sonic” trademark in arcades. Likely due to the risk and delay caused by the dispute, Sega decided to rebrand its arcade machines and games as “SegaSonic.” This turned out to be a wise move, since Taito did end up with the trademark to “Sonic” branded crane games, which filled Sega’s arcades at the time. Although there was never a dispute over the use of “Sonic” for merchandising, it can be assumed that Sega also rebranded its goods to “SegaSonic” to be consistent, since much of its Sonic merchandise was found in its arcades. Of course, there was also no dispute over “Sonic” for home consoles, so Sega continued to release its console games under that name.

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