Issue #
Pokemon with guns, Kim Kardashian - taking the Mickey!

A monthly look at the best examples of IP licensing in video games and the latest news on collaborations, brand partnerships and in-game events. 

We’re just over a month into 2024 and we’ve already got three potential Game of the Year contenders with Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, and Tekken 8 picking up rave reviews. Interestingly, all three games are the latest installments in long-running franchises, showcasing the power of well-known and nostalgic IP to drive sales. 

Speaking of nostalgia, the release of Pocket Pair’s survival game ‘Palworld’ is causing a stir in the gaming community due to its similarities with Pokemon. Is this plagiarism? Or does the general public just not understand IP laws? Legal expert Peter Lewin weighs in and shares his thoughts on developing video games based on IP in the public domain. In this case, Infestation Origins: a survival horror game featuring Mickey Mouse as ‘Steamboat Willie’, the animated short film which entered the public domain on January 1, 2024. 

Will the likes of Betty Boop, King Kong, and Snow White entering the public domain within the next ten years encourage the development of more IP-based games based on big names? Or should developers think outside the box and do something different? 

You can read our thoughts on that, as well as the hottest licensing in games news stories from last month, below. 

Public domain IP games: Risky endeavor or profitable pursuit?

Most people recognize January 1 as New Year’s Day, typically a day of rest after a heavy night before. But January 1 is also known as Public Domain Day, which marks thousands of copyrighted works entering the public domain. This year's notable entrant in the US Public Domain is Steamboat Willie, a 1928 short film featuring the earliest depictions of Disney’s Mickey the Mouse and Minnie the Mouse characters. 

This means the images used in this short film, including Mickey and Minnie, can now be shared, performed, reused, repurposed or sampled – great news for video game studios wanting to tap into the power of IP. As Vice reports, game developer Nightmare Forge Games announced its survival horror game featuring a grotesque version of Mickey the Mouse, Infestation Origins, shortly after Steamboat Willie entered the public domain. 

But does this mean video game developers now have free rein to use Mickey the Mouse in their video games? Not quite, as Peter Lewin, partner at IP, media and technology law firm Wiggin LLP, explains. 

“The issue here is that even if the original source material is no longer protected by copyright, subsequent books, stories, characters, adaptations, derivative works, remasters etcetera might still be protected,” Lewin tells us. “For example, while the very original version of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie recently became public domain, subsequent portrayals of Mickey Mouse most certainly have not.”

This isn’t the only challenge facing video game developers wanting to explore public domain IP. Whether you’re counting down the days until major franchises such as Popeye and King Kong enter public domain in the next ten years or have your eyes on a smaller IP you see potential in, it’s important to bear in mind figuring out when a work enters the public domain can be a lot more complicated than most people might think due to lengths of copyright protection varying across the world. 

For example, literary works in the US created after 1 January 1978 are generally protected by copyright 70 years after the author’s death. For “works made for hire” (e.g. sound recordings) post-1978, it’s 95 years from the year the broadcast was first aired or 120 years from the recording data – whichever is shorter. The position for works made pre-1978 is more complicated. As the length of copyright protection can change across parts of the world, one work falling into the public domain in a specific country doesn’t mean it’s fallen into the public domain globally.

“That’s crucial for game developers to be aware of – you must ensure that the underlying work has gone into the public domain wherever you’re releasing your game. Which nowadays, basically means globally,” Lewin explains. 

And to make matters more complicated, there can sometimes be exceptions to the normal rules on copyright duration. Lewin cites the Peter Pan novel as an example, which is in the public domain in the US but not in the UK. 

“This is because J. M. Barrie transferred their copyright in Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children before they died, and the UK government later implemented special legislation which means the hospital is forever entitled to receive royalties for all future performances of Peter Pan.”

Of course, it’s understandable that some game studios will want to tap into the power of well-established IP for their projects. Newzoo’s Games Market Trends 2024 report identifies nostalgia as a key trend driving the popularity of live-service games, and positioning your project alongside public domain IP with global recognition and a massive existing fanbase is a great way of driving awareness for your game. Would Infestation Origins have picked up the same levels of media coverage if Steamboat Willie wasn’t included? 

Lewin believes it’s likely we’ll see more video games based on public domain IP being developed over the coming years, but says the challenge for developers, alongside the potential legal pitfalls if they fall foul of licensing laws, is “how to ensure their project is good in its own right, rather than just relying on utilizing an old IP as more of a gimmick.”

He points to Lies of P, the Soulslike game developed by Korean studios Neowiz Games and Round8 Studio, as an example of that being done well. The game sold over one million copies in its first month and explores the tale of Pinocchio through a new and much darker narrative. As the online reviews pointed out at the time, this is very much Pinocchio meets Dark Souls. 

So, for any game studios wishing to explore the world of public domain IP, the secret to success so far is to innovate rather than replicate. On top of that, and perhaps most importantly, “speak to a lawyer,” says Lewin. 

“Games are incredibly expensive to make, and building a multi-million dollar product on an IP you don’t actually have the rights to use could be catastrophic. Aside from that, I’d encourage devs to think beyond the IPs which grab the most headlines, and explore the wealth of other excellent materials that could be available.” 

Lessons on IP law: Is Palworld really ‘Pokemon with Guns?’

Less than a month into a new year and the video game industry is already experiencing its first Twitter storm. This time it’s Palworld, a survival video game bearing a striking resemblance to the Pokemon series, with some Twitter/X users going as far as calling it out for plagiarism

It’s these similarities that have led to the game being called ‘Pokemon with Guns’. Others argue differently and say that as far as gameplay mechanics are concerned, Palworld is nothing like a Pokemon game. Regardless, the game’s controversy has opened up a discussion on IP infringement in video games, but with much of this criticism coming from players and game developers rather than legal professionals, perhaps the biggest question is: does Palworld infringe on The Pokemon Company’s IP? 

Wesley Yin-Poole recently explored this in a piece for IGN, where IP lawyer Peter Lewin shared his expertise on the matter. Lewin breaks down what Nintendo could and might do next by exploring the three key questions in any copyright infringement case. 

  • Is the original work protected by copyright? 
  • Has the alleged infringer copied a substantial part of the original work?
  • Are there any available defenses for claimed copyright infringement, such as parody or fair use?

The Pokemon games are, of course, protected by various copyright laws, but Lewin tells IGN that “ideas generally aren’t protected by copyright, but the particular expression of an idea can be.” He continues: 

“So one company can’t stop another from making a game about catching and battling monsters. However, if a company copies important aspects of how exactly another company expresses that game concept (characters, story beats, names etc), that’s where issues can arise. In this instance, the main focus seems to be on the Pal designs and 3D models, rather than the game concept as a whole.”

If Nintendo did decide to take action against the game’s development studio and publisher, Pocket Pair, it would need to prove that Pocket Pair infringed on Pokemon’s copyright, or depending on where the case was heard, Pocket Pair could have to prove that they didn’t copy the work. 

One of the reasons there’s so much interest from the gaming community in this developing as a potential scenario is Palworld has been an enormous success. Since its release on January 19 this year, the game has already sold over five million copies. If legal action was taken by The Pokemon Company, the game could be pulled from sale. But how likely is that to happen on the basis of everything we’ve seen and know about the game so far? 

Lewin says there can be a number of considerations that go into deciding whether or not to pursue another party for infringement. Speaking to us, he says: 

“Obviously there’s the legal basis (i.e. do I think I have a strong case to prove infringement), but there’s also cost, jurisdictional issues, competing internal priorities, brand reputation etc. As such, it’s hard to predict with certainty how different IP owners will react when they feel another work is too close to the bone.”  

It can be easy to get caught up in the middle of a debate surrounding a well-known video game. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen plenty of hot takes from LinkedIn experts and video game industry professionals who have asserted with the utmost confidence that Pocket Pair has plagiarized Pokemon designs. It’s worth bearing in mind the consequences of serious allegations such as these: those working on the game have said they’ve received death threats due to the negative publicity. 

Our advice in times such as these, especially when the video game industry is facing so much hardship, is to let the legal experts decide what is and what isn’t foul play – not social media users! 

Kim Kardashian’s mobile game and celebrity licensing strategies

There have been plenty of mobile games based on celebrities over the years, from Jason Statham’s ‘Sniper X’ to Christian Ronaldo’s Kick ‘n’ Run. But few have been as successful as Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a free-to-play life simulator and fashion game based on the iconic Kardashian sister. Nearly 60 million people have downloaded the game since its release in 2014, helping it to generate more than $250 million in revenue. 

But Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is no more! The mobile game was removed from app stores on January 3, 2024, although players who currently have the game on their devices can continue to play it until April 8 but won’t be able to make in-game purchases. As for why developer Glu Mobile (owned by EA) removed the game, we can’t say for certain but it could be due to licensing issues, especially as 2024 marks 10 years since the game was released. 

What’s interesting about the removal of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the game was still making a substantial amount of money nearly a decade after its release. According to data from Sensor Tower, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood made $502k between Dec 5–Jan 5 and had an average of 20,000 daily active users across the same period. That’s impressive, as most mobile games based on celebrity licenses wane in popularity after their initial release. 

So how are mobile games based on celebrity IP faring in general? While none have been able to replicate the extraordinary success of the Kardashian power, SensorTower’s Landscape Shifts in IP report finds celebrity licenses are still a major driver for game downloads, with games based on Gordon Ramsay, Ellen DeGeneres and Blackpink still thriving – Gordon Ramsay’s Chef Blast made $175k in January. 

That said, of the top 10 celebrity licensed IPs, five of those are based on influencers, which lines up with younger audiences heading to mobile games. And while games based on celebrity IP have potential to generate lots of revenue, it’s often only the biggest names with global appeal and PR power behind them that find themselves in the top-grossing charts. Simply put: there’s no guarantee of success. 

Developing original games based on celebrity IP can be a costly endeavour and there’s no guarantee that your project will be a success. A safer strategy for licensors looking to work in the gaming space might be to integrate with a well-known game and license your IP for a limited-time event. 

A great example of this for a celebrity license is Stumble Guys’ integration with the influencer Mr Beast, which boosted game downloads for Stumble Guys by 600% in the first week of the collaboration, contributing to the game’s overall revenues of $6m in October.

In brief 

Here are some of our other favorite brand collaborations, licensing deals and partnerships from the last month. 

And in other news…