ByMarcus O'Shea, writer at
Resident RPG nerd and SoulsBorne fanatic. Can be spotted by their floofy hair.
Marcus O'Shea

Kong: Skull Island has released in theaters and the iconic ape is rampaging over the box office to much acclaim. But although King Kong is an icon of giant ape-dom dating back to the thirties, he's not the uncontested king. In fact, there's another big ape that shares the limelight, a video game hero (and villain) that was enough of a threat that got sued over it.

Donkey Kong And King Kong: When Universal Studios Sued Nintendo

[Credit: RKO Pictures]
[Credit: RKO Pictures]

The year is 1982, and is one of the biggest games in the world. This juggernaut has made Nintendo $180 million dollars, and will go on to be one of the biggest pieces of pop-culture of the era.

At the same time, Universal Studios's company president Sid Sheinberg is just getting into this whole "video games" thing. The remake of the classic film had been released only a few years before, and Sid wants to get a licensed King Kong game into the arcades. Which is when he discovers the existence of the character Donkey Kong.

The Sleeping Giant Of Universal Studios Awakens

[Credit: Warner Bros.]
[Credit: Warner Bros.]

In Sid's eyes, Nintendo was clearly copying from the studio's hit film property; the giant ape, the captured maiden, the building, it was all there. Ironically, Donkey Kong had actually arisen out of a failed attempt at making a Popeye game. When the rights had fallen through, Nintendo used the material they'd developed and simply replaced the characters of Popeye with their own designs.

Universal immediately launched legal action. They sent Nintendo, and their collaborator Coleco cease and desist letters, claiming copyright infringement. Universal demanded that both companies cease all distribution of the game and pay them the full profits they'd made from the title. Coleco settled, offering 3% of Donkey Kong to Universal, but Nintendo wouldn't budge.

Universal Beats Their Legal Chest

[Credit: Universal Pictures]
[Credit: Universal Pictures]

Universal began to push hard, demanding royalties and issuing threats to the company. They began to pressure Nintendo's partners and distributers, issuing legal threats if the companies didn't pay Universal royalties. Most caved, but Nintendo's attorney Howard Lincoln refused to settle.

Lincoln knew that Universal studios didn't have a leg to stand on. When he pressed Universal on whether they really owned the rights to the giant ape, asking for some proof of legal ownership, the company blustered, stalled and issued further threats. Lincoln teamed up with powerhouse lawyer John Kirby, who'd won big cases for companies like Pepsi, and calmly met Universal head-on in the court room, armed with the knowledge that would bring their adversary down.

An Ancient Mystery, Who Owned King Kong?

[Credit: Toho & Universal-International]
[Credit: Toho & Universal-International]

The fact is, no one's ever been entirely sure who owned the rights to King Kong. The original director, Merian C. Cooper, had long assumed he was the owner, but when the time came to challenge studios like Toho and Pioneer that were making knock-off Kong properties, Cooper discovered he had no proof.

Things got even more convoluted as time went on. The studio that had produced the original film, RKO Pictures, assumed they were the owners of the license, but when Dino De Laurentiis purchased the remake rights in the 70s, Universal Studios jumped in, claiming they already owned the remake rights.

In the ensuing court case, Universal argued that RKO had let the copyright expire, which meant the character was now public domain. RKO claimed they still held the rights, and Merian Cooper's son, who now handled his estate, claimed that they owned the rights, not RKO or Universal. The judge ruled in Universal's favor, which meant that they were free to jump in on the remake of the famous creature feature.

The Giant Gets Toppled

[Credit: Nintedo]
[Credit: Nintedo]

Of course, what this meant was that Universal, who had spent the last several months blustering about being the rights holders for the entire King Kong property, had walked into a court room less than a decade before and proved that no one owned it, at least not in a way that they could sue Nintendo.

The courts were not kind to Universal Studios. In their ruling, they pointed out that Universal had to have known they didn't own the rights to King Kong, but they'd spent the last year intimidating, threatening and extorting Nintendo and their partners. Not only did Universal soundly lose the legal battle, but they were forced to pay back all the royalties they'd extorted. Hoorah for Nintendo and the big DK!

And that hasn't even been the last legal controversy that King Kong's gotten embroiled in either! The production of was almost stopped when the author of the novel Kong: King of Skull Island claimed he'd invented the world of Skull Island, and was the legal owner of it. Let's hope that doesn't get in the way of the inevitable showdown with Godzilla.

Did you enjoy Kong: Skull Island? Hoping for a new Donkey Kong game? Let us know in the comments!


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