Judgement DayThe Judge Rules

On December 22, 1983 Judge Sweet handed down the judgment. The court’s decision dismissed Universal’s complaint of trademark infringement and unfair competition. Nintendo had prevailed due to skilled and expert counsel. An excerpt of the summary judgment reads as follows:

“A hearing was conducted on August 8, 1983 on the motion for summary judgment during which “Donkey Kong” was demonstrated by a game master and pertinent parts of the 1933 movie and the 1976 remake were reviewed, an altogether satisfying court day enhanced by the argument of highly skilled and forceful counsel and marred only by the submission of affidavits, depositions and briefs.”

Universal vs Nintendo Summary JudgmentDuring the trial it was revealed that Universal didn’t own the rights to King Kong. In fact, Universal themselves had won a prior decision in 1976 establishing “King Kong” to be in the public domain. The court was not pleased with Universal and their abuse of the judicial process. Nintendo was granted summary judgment and Nintendo was subsequently awarded damages resulting from counter-claims. Universal appealed the ruling several times. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, yet it failed to be overturned.

Why was this case so important? Nintendo Co. Ltd. (NCL) was a relative newcomer to the video game business and Nintendo of America (NOA) even more so. In short time the company established themselves as an industry leader and able to defend its business interests.

The Significance

Super Mario Bros.Mind you that the outcome of this case was the result of skillful legal representation and legal precedence. But ponder if you will had Universal owned the rights to King Kong as they claimed and successfully defended them. More than likely, Nintendo would have looked to developing games that avoided further royalties paid to Universal. Donkey Kong Jr. would have been the last commercial release in the series, though Donkey Kong 3 was in development at the time. With Japanese culture being prone to formality and superstition, what would have been the fate of Mario in future games?

Back then the company’s success clearly revolved around Donkey Kong. The twin 60,000 sq. ft. buildings Nintendo built in Redmond, WA were penned by employees as “The House that Donkey Kong Built.” We even had a room just to display all the Donkey Kong licensed products.

This legal victory established Nintendo and Howard Lincoln as both company and executive who were not to be reckoned with. If there’s such a thing as “legal mojo”, it was immediately evidenced in the aftermath of the courts decision. Nintendo and the F.B.I. were able to successfully enforce and prosecute against the illegal manufacturing and importation of arcade game PCBs into the US. Donkey Kong was one of the key games being counterfeited because of its global popularity. Nintendo really assumed the leadership position in this important issue and aggressively defended its business interests.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)Within two years, Nintendo later single-handedly revived the home video game industry in the US with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Games starring Mario and Donkey Kong in large part drove the success of the system. Without Donkey Kong and Mario, how would your childhood have been different? I believe it played a major part in shaping the lives and careers of many in the video game business. Would there even be a video game industry today?

My participation is but a footnote, but I’m proud to have been involved in the most important case in video game history. It cleared the way for Nintendo to charter it’s own course in history and redefine the home console industry. Shigeru Miyamoto went on to video game stardom, designing games featuring Donkey Kong and Mario. Nintendo had good reason to feel confidence in its leadership and kept intact it’s growing war chest of video game revenues.

The entire summary judgment can be read in its entirety, in “Universal City Studios, Inc., Plaintiff, v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. And Nintendo of America, Inc., Defendants.”

The Video Game Historian, hosted by Norman Caruso has produced a YouTube documentary on this event. I stumbled across the original video online and noticed the inaccuracy of who played the games in court and contacted him. Upon validation of the facts he gladly made the edit. My thanks to Norman for correcting this piece of video game history.


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