Universal Goes Ape

Donkey Kong was the early hit that cemented Nintendo's position in the video-game business, and the cash cow that sustained the fledgling Nintendo of America. The game became an outright phenomenon, and Nintendo signed deals for everything from board games to lunch boxes to a cartoon show. More importantly, it sold the rights to make various console and computer ports. With over 60,000 Donkey Kong machines produced, and all of the income from the various licensing deals, Nintendo was flying high.

Poor, innocent Donkey Kong. He just wanted to be loved.
Until, that is, Nintendo's Japanese office received a telex from MCA Universal stating that the company had 48 hours to hand all profits earned from Donkey Kong over to MCA and destroy all unsold Donkey Kong inventory. The reason? MCA alleged that Donkey Kong infringed on Universal Studios' "King Kong" copyright. Never fond of being threatened, NoA met with MCA lawyers, seemingly with the intent of settling. MCA could see no other outcome, but Nintendo was suspicious, and asked for a short delay. It was granted, and the Nintendo legal team went to work digging up everything it could on the "King Kong" property.

A month later, the two sides reconvened. After a civil dinner, Nintendo counsel Howard Lincoln dropped the bomb: They weren't settling. MCA honcho Sid Sheinberg reportedly went ballistic, and the lawsuit was on. Unfortunately for MCA, Nintendo had a very good reason for refraining from a settlement: It had discovered that MCA did not own the "King Kong" copyright! Even more shockingly, in a previous lawsuit MCA Universal had actually gone to pains to prove that the "King Kong" property was public domain!

The writing was on the wall. With such strong evidence on its side, Nintendo pushed for a dismissal, which the judge quickly granted. MCA was ordered to pay $1.8 million in damages to Nintendo and to return the money it had bullied out of other Donkey Kong-affiliated licensees it had drawn into the dispute.

Ben: Good idea: suing to prevent infringement of intellectual property you own. Bad idea: suing to prevent infringement of intellectual property that's public domain. It's too bad for MCA that it did the latter because it ultimately paid the price for its arrogance and greed. In short, dumb move. On the flipside, the episode provided an early glimpse of Nintendo of America's legendary boldness and legal acumen, and served as the impetus for Howard Lincoln finally getting hired by the Big N. Thanks, MCA!

hardcore_pawn: When I try and think of the situational comedy that must have ensued at MCA Universal when the court ruling was final, it's hard for me to fathom that the blame lay with just one individual. I mean, come on. There must have been more than a few MCA employees that knew the score. Maybe MCA was calling Nintendo's bluff, but the fact remains that you'd better get your facts straight before messing with the Big N. Sure, Donkey Kong looks, sounds, and pretty much is a digital version of King Kong, but hey, there's no accounting for stupidity in this life.

ferricide: The idea, as I understand it, is that MCA Universal was pretty well aware that it had shaky legal ground, but thought it could bully this small, up-and-coming Japanese company into the ground on its home turf by acting big. This turned out to be a huge mistake, obviously, but think of it from the perspective of an arrogant American businessman in the early '80s: the title of the game is barely coherent -- we can't lose! Fortunately, Nintendo knew what it was doing.

Delsyn: Gamers are used to thinking of Nintendo as one of the 900-pound gorillas of the gaming industry. We tend to forget that when big entertainment conglomerates look at video-game companies, they see nothing but penny-ante operators -- especially in the early '80s when Nintendo was much smaller and MCA could have bought them out with the change in Sid Sheinberg's pockets. While Nintendo has pulled its own stupid stunts over the years, in this case it was so unequivocally right, and what MCA Universal did was so wrong and sleazy, that I'm glad MCA got its collective butts handed to them. The problem is that sometimes, the little guys who were right then turn around and act the same way when they're big. I hope Nintendo never forgets this lesson because I guarantee someone's waiting in the wings to do it to them.

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