The august representatives of the Pokémon Company have descended from their hilltop PokéMansion, approached the hushed masses of PokéFans with their flaming Torchics and shocked Pichaku placards, and asked everybody to please, please, please, please, please stop yelling at them about Palworld potentially breaching Pokémon’s copyright. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like they’re saying between the lines of a statement published a few hours ago, in which the Pokémon Company acknowledges messages sent by the concerned PokéFaithful about “another company’s game released in January 2024”.
If you’re late to the party, possibly because you only play games on an Apple Macintosh 128K, Palworld is a new survival sim in the Ark vein with a monster-catching element. The monsters themselves, aka Pals, appear heavily inspired by Pokémon – the overall vibe is very much “Aldi variation on your favourite brand of Ketchup”.
Developers Pocketpair insist that they’re original creations. In a blog from earlier this month, translated by our guides writer Jeremy Blum, CEO Takuro Mizobe argued that “many people say that PalWorld is just a plagiarised game, but it has special novelties in it, like how Genshin Impact differs from Breath of the Wild”. But the internet teems nonetheless with speculation that Palworld is actively infringing Pokémon’s copyright, spurred partly by Palworld’s genuinely astounding sales success. It’s the second game in Steam’s history to exceed two million concurrent players.
Much of the copyright infringement chat is just the usual drive-by tweeting, but some of the accusations are more in earnest. One anonymous Xitter user has shared videos and images comparing models from each game, which have been proffered by several game developers as being indicative of plagiarism of in-game assets.
When we sought perspective from lawyers earlier this week, however, they suggested that Nintendo and the Pokémon Company would struggle to win a court case against Pocketpair, because the monster designs are still just about distinguishable as the work of different people, and Palworld doesn’t play much like Pokémon beyond the act of collecting monsters – it’s got proper base-building, for instance, to say nothing of butchering Pals and enslaving other human characters. The anon who shared the above model comparisons that are being taken as evidence of plagiarism has since walked back their comments a little, posting that, “I want to emphasize that while some elements are similar these meshes are not literally ‘exact’ copies of each other.”
And now, at long last, Nintendo have weighed in. Or at least, told all concerned to get off their goddamn lawn. “We have received many inquiries regarding another company’s game released in January 2024,” reads an official statement, in a translation passed on by Game Informer. “We have not granted any permission for the use of Pokémon intellectual property or assets in that game. We intend to investigate and take appropriate measures to address any acts that infringe on intellectual property rights related to the Pokémon. We will continue to cherish and nurture each and every Pokémon and its world, and work to bring the world together through Pokémon in the future.”
To me, this feels like boilerplate legal text designed principally to reassure overinvested Pokémon players and the company’s stakeholders that Nintendo are not asleep at the wheel, and will intervene should they deem it necessary. Which, as people have pointed out in the comments on here, they probably would have done several years ago when Palworld was announced. But it’s possible that Nintendo have been biding their time, and that Palworld’s massive sales will motivate them to consider the matter more seriously. Certainly, they’re already taking the usual firm line with people who mod actual Pokémon into Palworld.
When I wrote up last week’s report on the technicalities of any potential case for copyright infringement, I neglected to add that we shouldn’t actively call on massive corporations to sue much smaller competitors. Copyright law is supposed to be a means of protecting livelihoods, but it can also be a means of prosecuting an effective monopoly on certain ideas, stifling game preservation efforts, and arbitrarily policing the act of being inspired. At the very least, it’s a poor species of “enthusiasm” that loves an artwork so much it wants any and all close competition taken to court.
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