Rock Em! Sock Em! Sue Em!

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

The following year, negotiations continued on both sides to refine the initial Joint Venture Agreement, without success. Profile, in court filings, says it suspected that Thorpe was planning a 1997 event behind its back, in violation of the existing agreement, which stated that all decisions had to be made jointly. Profile called BASS and realized tickets were being sold for a 1997 Robot Wars event in August at Fort Mason. The event's sponsor was listed as Stickman Presents, a company belonging to Thorpe. What was formerly an extended negotiation period finally ended up in the courtroom. Profile filed a cease-and-desist action against Thorpe, seeking a preliminary injunction preventing any Robot Wars events outside the initial Joint Venture Agreement.

Thorpe claimed Profile didn't want to fund a 1997 event because he hadn't signed their offer to turn Robot Wars into a limited liability corporation (LLC), with Profile holding a controlling percentage. Profile also wanted creative control, and demanded a non-compete agreement from Thorpe, his court filings say.

Attorneys on both sides went back and forth on the matter, and after meeting with a judge, a temporary agreement was reached. Robot Wars would allow Thorpe to conduct the 1997 San Francisco event, for a $1 fee. Thorpe would be responsible for all costs, retain all profits, and receive a salary. The existing business structure would be changed to an LLC. Profile would advance more money to Robot Wars and provide accounting; Robot Wars would pay Profile back its investment on an installment plan.

Drivers pilot their robots from behind a clear Lexan wall.
Don Lewis
Drivers pilot their robots from behind a clear Lexan wall.
Mechadon wows the crowd at BattleBots.
Don Lewis
Mechadon wows the crowd at BattleBots.

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The 1997 Robot Wars event attracted the largest crowd yet, but it would be the last. Immediately afterward, Thorpe and Plotnicki ended up back in court.

According to Thorpe, Plotnicki had blatantly refused to negotiate with other companies that were interested in doing deals with Robot Wars, including Fox television, Jim Henson, Tyco-Mattel, and TalentWorks, a pay-per-view company that had produced the World Series and the Super Bowl. Thorpe alleged that Plotnicki was deliberately attempting to starve the business so that he could gain control of it. Thorpe maintained that the Robot Wars Limited company that struck the deal with British television was formed by Profile behind Thorpe's back. His attorneys stressed that Profile would draft agreements, get him to agree to them in principle, and then change the wording just before he signed them.

Plotnicki argued that Thorpe was infringing on the Robot Wars trademark, and using it for his own purposes. He said that Thorpe made the matter public by posting court documents to Web sites for the robot community to read, and that Thorpe was no longer using his influence to promote the Robot Wars name. And he claimed that Thorpe was trying to form another company with Trey Roski behind Profile's back.

Although neither Thorpe nor Plotnicki wanted to be quoted for this story, conversations with them, along with a labyrinth of court documents, reveal a striking difference in their styles and approach to business.

Born in Queens, the 45-year-old Plotnicki comes from a street-smart New York background. He played in a band during the disco years, before moving into management. He doesn't know much about robots, but he's a sharp businessman, seasoned at using lawyers and the courtroom when needed. Plotnicki himself admits he considers litigation a dance, something that's necessary to doing business. Having worked in the music industry, Plotnicki says, he knows that lawsuits are an inevitability, especially when creative people reach some degree of success and want to turn on the people who got them there. He sees little difference between robot builders and garage rock bands. And he has enough money to keep several suits going simultaneously.

Thorpe, on the other hand, is a native Californian, and up until this dispute was completely naive about business and the law. A model builder and performance artist, he's never had much money. The few things he had going for him during the legal battle were that he was the father of robotic combat, he could generate lots of publicity, he had goodwill among the robot community, and he still owned the Robot Wars trademark. But he is just as stubborn as Plotnicki.

Negotiations broke down into ugly shouting. Court documents allege that at one point, Plotnicki told one of Thorpe's attorneys, "I will pursue [Marc Thorpe] past bankruptcy and destroy him and his family."

Plotnicki is quick to point out that an affidavit was filed denying he made this statement.

"The personalities involved in this case overshadowed any legal concepts," says Casper Ewig, one of Thorpe's legal counsel. "The legal concepts in this case were not that difficult. The acrimony in the case was probably the greatest I've come across, as a lawyer."

More mediation continued, with counterproposals sent back and forth. Another settlement was reached in December 1997, which would force Thorpe to relinquish his percentage in exchange for producing three events a year. Thorpe said the wording of the agreement had again been altered from when it was first agreed upon, and refused to sign it. He attempted to obtain a court order allowing him to produce the 1998 Robot Wars event, but a judge denied it.

What Thorpe and Plotnicki hadn't anticipated was the passion and sense of propriety among the robot community. Builders were following the dispute, and had some ideas of their own.

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