Pokémon with guns. What a concept.
On Jan. 19, Japanese game studio Pocketpair released Palworld to blockbuster numbers. An enormous audience flocked to the open-world survival title, which allows players to outfit cute, animal-like creatures with assault rifles or rocket launchers. Almost overnight, the game evolved from an obscure indie project mocked as a dystopian knockoff of Pokémon to one of the most popular games in the world. It sold over six million copies in four days, with among the highest concurrent player counts in the history of the Steam marketplace.
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One question in the backdrop of the game’s breakout success that may decide its future viability, as well as other titles that toe the line between copyright infringement and taking advantage of popular concepts and designs without crossing that boundary: Do the “pals,” eerily similar to the creatures in Pokémon, infringe on existing intellectual property?
Takuro Mizobe, chief executive of Pocketpair, has said any resemblance to the celebrated franchise isn’t deliberate. “We make our games very seriously, and we have absolutely no intention of infringing upon the intellectual property of other companies,” he told Automaton.
On Monday, Mizobe said in post on X that “all productions related to Palworld are supervised by multiple people,” suggesting that it passed legal review.
The Pokémon Company, Game Freak and Nintendo may have already looked into whether any of their rights were violated. Pocketpair released a trailer for the game three years ago. If they were to sue, the companies would’ve likely sent a cease-and-desist around that time to block the title’s release.
The rightsholders to Pokémon may not think legal action is worth the trouble, though a lawsuit could be in the works. There’s a principle in copyright law: It’s not the idea that’s protected but the expression. The Pokémon Company, Game Freak and Nintendo collectively own the character designs in the titular game and series, as well as the way that intellectual property is portrayed. But they don’t own the idea of a game around players collecting monsters and battling them.
In a 1994 ruling in a lawsuit over similarities between Capcom’s Street Fighter II and Data East’s Fighter’s History, the court found there was no copyright infringement despite evidence indicating that character and special move design documents explicitly referenced materials from Capcom’s game. U.S. District Judge William Orrick grounded the reasoning in the so-called Merger doctrine, which disfavors copyright protection when doing so would effectively give an entity a monopoly in the expression of an idea. Courts have affirmed the holding that generic concepts and functional rules are not copyrightable, though they’ve also clarified in a trend toward a less permissive approach to copyright law that the “look and feel” of games are protectable.
If it were to go to court, the Pokémon Company would likely sue over similarities in character design. In a post on X comparing the creatures in Pokémon and Palworld, Byo Frogs used 3D models to find that some of the designs shared near-exact proportions. Pocket Pair could argue that using Pokémon character designs is protected under fair use, but courts would likely take a skeptical view of that argument considering the lack of exaggerated elements in the game lending credence to the idea that it’s a parody and the overlapping markets the titles compete in.
Still, proving infringement could prove difficult for even the most accomplished copyright lawyer considering the uphill climb most direct copying claims face in court, which have held that no entity can claim ownership of a specific style of art. There’s a long history of properties influencing one another; Digimon borrowed from Pokémon, which borrowed from Dragon Quest.
The Pokémon Company declined to comment. Pocketpair didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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