Friday, January 26, 2024
Copyright law is weird
Last time I counted I was named as an inventor on 32 patents. Patent law is complicated, but relatively straightforward. I am not a lawyer, but my involvement with patent has made me understand some things. If I invent for example a machine that turns sunlight and the carbon dioxide and humidity contained in air into fuel, I'll write up the description of how that machine works and claim that idea as mine. Anybody else wanting to make another machine with the same functionality would have to use basic principles that fall outside my claimed idea. Just changing the looks of the machine, or minor technical details, wouldn't be enough to circumvent my patent.
Copyright and trademark law is infinitely more complicated. You can't copyright an idea. So if Nintendo wants to sue Pocketpair over Palworld, it isn't sufficient for them say that they have a copyright on the blue penguin-like Pokemon Piplup and the blue penguin-like Pal Pengulet in Palworld is a copyright infringement. They would have to prove "confusing similarity" or "substantial similarity". Which isn't the same as the typical person's reaction to Palworld, which is to call the Pals in the game Pokemon.
Weirdly enough, if Nintendo tomorrow launched the game Pokeworld with *exactly* the same game mechanics as Palworld, but using their Pokemon instead of Pals, Pocketpair could not sue them. You can't copyright or patent game mechanics, although some companies have tried and failed. So in the other direction, Nintendo can't sue Pocketpair for using Breath of the Wild style movement in Palworld.
Note that if I say "can't sue", I mean "won't succeed when suing". You *can* sue anybody for anything, you just won't necessarily get very far with it. In many cases a strongly worded letter from a company lawyer can already achieve the same result. Many small games on Steam have been taken down when somebody claimed that the game infringed a copyright. But that is a business decision from Valve when receiving such a letter from a lawyer. Given that right at the moment that I write this Palworld is the game with the most players currently playing it on Steam, Valve would probably not be willing to shut it down based on solely a letter.
Now Nintendo is a lot larger than Pocketpair, and could probably do immense damage to their smaller competitor by suing them, just by the legal costs alone. But Nintendo might not actually want to do that. Unless, as some people on the internet claim, Pocketpair directly stole 3D models from Nintendo and Nintendo can prove that, a lawsuit based only on outward similarity might easily backfire. A court finding that the Palworld Pals are "legally distinct" from Pokemon might open a floodgate and encourage others to rip off Nintendo stuff.
I think it is obvious that the huge success of Palworld is based on Pokemon. But that is more a business failure of Nintendo, who failed to create an open world, real-time Pokemon game. There was an unmet demand here somewhere, which Pocketpair cleverly identified and exploited. I don't think that beyond some threatening gestures Nintendo will actually do anything legally against Pocketpair. The genie is out of the bottle.