Copyright, Intellectual Property, Technology, Video games

Historical Hypocrisy: Donkey Kong, King Kong, & The Public Domain

Ed. note: This post appears courtesy of our friends at Techdirt. We’ll be sharing law-related posts from Techdirt from time to time in these pages.

Universal Studios seems to have some trouble establishing concrete ideas and positions when it comes to copyright on its own products. In recent iterations, this has manifested itself in the form of their protesting a parody of 50 Shades of Grey while conveniently ignoring that work’s birth in the form of Twighlight fan-fiction. Alternatively, there are times when Universal doesn’t even seem to know what it holds the rights to and what it doesn’t. Well, it turns out that these stumbles aren’t exactly a new experience for Universal.

Chris O’Donnell writes in with the historical and hysterical case of Universal suing Nintendo over Donkey Kong shortly after Universal itself had argued that the property the dispute was based on, King Kong, was in the public domain. See, back when Michael Jackson was still best known for his music, Nintendo came up with their iconic Donkey Kong character, admittedly in some part inspired by the famous King Kong character. This inspiration, it turns out, came after the fact, but that didn’t stop Universal Studios from filing suit against Nintendo, because they had released a remake of King Kong a few years earlier. While some within Nintendo wanted to simply settle with Universal and move forward, others within sought out the words of a key ally to fight against them, and that ally was Universal Studios.

Universal’s King Kong movie debuted in 1976, but it wasn’t an original story. Rather, the movie was a remake of a movie with the same title made in 1933 by RKO General. The 1976 remake came with its own round of litigation, with many parties claiming to have at least partial rights over the name, characters, and plot of the movie. Universal, however, argued that no one did, and that the characters and plot were in the public domain. In the subsequent litigation with Nintendo, the court noted this inconsistency, using it as part of the basis for finding that Nintendo’s Donkey Kong game did not infringe upon Universal’s rights (if any) over King Kong. Nintendo prevailed, and, when Universal appealed, the next court admonished Universal for its inconsistent legal logic.

Ah, sweet, sweet hypocrisy. With one hand, hitting Nintendo over the head with the IP hammer, while holding a shield against another IP hammer with the other. The court was not pleased, noting that Universal’s president, Sidney Sheinberg, was clearly well versed in the intellectual property status of King Kong via the earlier lawsuit, and to then pretend the company held rights in it was clearly a move to abuse the law:

Finally, Universal’s conduct amounted to an abuse of judicial processes, and in that sense caused a larger harm to the public as a whole. Depending on the commercial results, Universal alternatively argued to the courts, first, that King Kong was part of the public domain, and then second, that King Kong was not part of the public domain, and that Universal possessed exclusive trademark rights in it. Universal’s assertions in court were based not on any good faith belief in their truth, but on the mistaken belief that it could use the courts to turn a profit.

As noted, Nintendo was victorious and Donkey Kong was released, since becoming its own franchise and propelling Nintendo so such status that it can initiate its own legal action based on its intellectual property.

Such a wonderful web intellectual property tends to weave.

Historical Hypocrisy: Donkey Kong, King Kong, & The Public Domain

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