Rock Em! Sock Em! Sue Em!

Legal battles decked the wildly popular Robot Wars competitions. Now a challenger has arisen to save the sport.

But Robot Wars has not been staged since 1997, the victim of two years of heated litigation. The BattleBots contest in Long Beach is a new incarnation of the concept, an effort by new organizers to revive a sport that had disappeared into the maw of courthouses and law offices.

In many ways, the fight over who owns the rights to Robot Wars has been bloodier than any robot duel. Marc Thorpe, the Bay Area model builder who dreamed up the sport and produced the first four Robot Wars events, is no longer involved with any aspect of the business. Thorpe has been sued for $8.9 million by his former business partner, Steve Plotnicki, owner of New York-based Profile Records.

Many in fighting robot circles still treat Thorpe as their figurehead, but he has lost all rights to his idea, and a court order bars him from any involvement in the very sport he created. He has declared bankruptcy, and could lose his home in Marin County.

Killahurtz and Nightmare taste the fury of robotic combat.
Don Lewis
Killahurtz and Nightmare taste the fury of robotic combat.
BattleBots stagehands pump up the crowd.
Don Lewis
BattleBots stagehands pump up the crowd.

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The bad feelings created by the ongoing lawsuits run deep through the extended robot family, a community that one competitor terms "New Age NASCAR." In addition to Thorpe, Plotnicki sued other robot builders -- including the heavyweight champion. He has also sued the BattleBots organization, which is based in San Francisco, and tried to stop it from staging its Long Beach contest. Lawsuits between Plotnicki, Thorpe, and Roski are still not resolved.

Because of the tricky legal situation, BattleBots' producers carefully distanced their event from Robot Wars, in name, design, and execution. The only hint that the sport even existed in a previous incarnation was a single disclaimer in the BattleBots program, stating that BattleBots has no affiliation with Robot Wars or any other organization.

If Robot Wars should emerge from the lawsuits and stage any events in the future, many robot builders say they won't have anything to do with it. They don't like how Thorpe has been treated. And they're afraid of getting sued themselves.

At the BattleBots contest, a San Francisco special effects model-maker named Fon Davis stands in the Pit, recharging his batteries. His pink-colored Mouser Catbot 2000, painted to resemble the face of a cat, scoots across the floor like an upturned salad bowl. It first debuted in the 1997 Robot Wars. At the mention of Profile and the tangle of lawsuits, Davis reacts immediately.

"I think a lot of people are hoping it's over," he says, shutting the lid of his robot. "It's an unfortunate situation. They're making a lot of enemies. You don't sue your entertainment, you know?"

If there's any lesson to be learned in the short history of Robot Wars, it's that the intersection of art and commerce is always precarious and unpredictable. Even with something as seemingly irrelevant as battling robots, it's possible to come up with a great idea that everyone loves and have it completely taken away from you.

A 1971 graduate of UC Davis, artist Marc Thorpe once received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for training two dolphins to swim in patterns that created "behavior sculpture." He later joined George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic in Marin, where he worked for 15 years as a model builder and toy designer. Among his credits were the second and third Star Wars films, and the Indiana Jones trilogy. One day in 1992, he was fooling around in his kitchen, trying to connect a radio-controlled model tank to his vacuum cleaner. The experiment failed; an idea was born.

Thorpe was bored with building models to fulfill someone else's creative vision. Coincidentally, ILM dissolved his department, and he had no experience in computer graphics, the direction that ILM was headed. He needed something else to do.

He spent the next two years devising a new game, a sport where robotic vehicles of similar size would fight duels in front of a live audience. The battleground arena would feature obstacles like circular saws, giant pinball-type flippers, and a bowling ball suspended by a rope. Thorpe registered the name Robot Wars as a trademark, and began looking for backers to stage his event.

There weren't even any fighting robots to personify the concept, so Thorpe took a model of a tank, attached a couple of evil-looking saw blades and gears, photographed it, and made up promotional kits. Once the idea was planted in the minds of designers and tinkerers, Thorpe figured, real robots would follow.

Thorpe secured a building at Fort Mason to stage his first event, and started pushing the publicity buttons. He met with a few investors, but they balked. He canceled and rescheduled the date of the Robot Wars premiere event three times. Finally, a blurb about Thorpe's vision appeared in a 1994 issue of Wired. "I don't feel uncomfortable about destruction," Thorpe told the magazine. "Promoting combat between robots instead of people is a healthy alternative." The article caught the eye of Profile Records, a small indie label in New York City.

Best known for launching the rap group Run-D.M.C., Profile was always on the lookout for new opportunities. A representative flew out to San Francisco and met with Thorpe. With one month to go before the 1994 event was scheduled to take place, a deal was struck. Profile and Thorpe would go 50/50 on a new company called Robot Wars. Profile kicked in $50,000 to produce the event, and Thorpe was credited for $7,000 of his own money he'd already spent. A Joint Venture Agreement was drafted and signed between Thorpe and Profile President Steve Plotnicki.

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