John Kirby, the Lawyer that Saved Nintendo, Dies at 79

John Kirby, the Lawyer that Saved Nintendo, Dies at 79

In 1982, Kirby assisted with legal gorilla warfare.

John Kirby, a famous defence lawyer for Nintendo and the probable namesake of the character Kirby, died on October 2 due to complications from blood cancer. He was 79.

It's not a stretch to say Kirby's defense potentially saved Nintendo from dire financial harm when it was still trying to find its way as a video game developer. When Donkey Kong became a big North American arcade success in 1981, Universal City Studios (later Universal Studios) tried to sue Nintendo for copyright infringement on King Kong. Universal argued that the name "Donkey Kong" was too easily confused with "King Kong," and that the plot for Donkey Kong was too much like Universal's movie. John Kirby countered that not only was King Kong in the public domain, but that Universal itself had argued as much in a previous case. The judge ruled in Nintendo's favor and ordered Universal to pay Nintendo's legal fees and damages.

As you might expect, a lot of legal-ese was exchanged during the lawsuit. If court cases about huge fake gorillas is your jam, you can find pages of jargon on Casetext. Books about Nintendo's early history, such as Game Over by David Sheff, also do a good job summarizing the lawsuit.

While it's never been confirmed by Nintendo or Kirby that Nintendo's lovable gluttonous pink puffball was named after the lawyer, Kirby's obituary says the link is indeed legit. It also mentions a sailboat Nintendo gifted to Kirby, which was appropriately named "Donkey Kong."

Kirby also did a good deal of important work during the Civil Rights movement in the '60s. When he worked at the Department of Justice (where he started as a summer intern), he gathered voting records across the U.S. south that offered evidence of discrimination against African American voters. These records were used to help form the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in the act of voting.

Kirby is survived by his wife, his two sons, his two daughters, his two brothers, and his two sisters.

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve,, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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