The Battle of Donkey Kong

The following is a translated excerpt from the book Sore wa “Pong” kara Hajimatta by Masumi Akagi (Ch. 18, Pg. 305-307). It is from the chapter on the legal issues surrounding Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, which has a more colorful history than some might want to admit. I personally believe that these matters are why Nintendo’s rereleases of the game are always the NES version rather than the original arcade game, but that’s just speculation on my part.

The Copyright Dispute Between Nintendo and Ikegami Tsushinki

While the suit against Falcon over copied Donkey Kong games and the public hearing over unauthorized Donkey Kong Junior copies continued, another lawsuit opened up between Nintendo and Ikegami Tsushinki concerning the rights to the program code for Donkey Kong. Though this would seem to complicate matters even more, this lawsuit actually brought a number of things to light.

The connection between the two companies was that Ikegami Tsushinki, a manufacturer of broadcasting equipment, took a request from Tokuzou Komai of Nintendo Leisure System to develop video games for Nintendo. It was agreed that Ikegami would develop and manufacture arcade-use games and exclusively supply them to Nintendo, who would then sell them as their own product.

This outsourcing contract included eight titles, including Block Fever, Space Fever, Sheriff, Space Firebird, Radarscope, and Donkey Kong. Basically, for these games, Ikegami planned, programmed, and developed them. From Space Firebird on, Nintendo became involved in design, and with Donkey Kong, Nintendo became deeply involved in development. After this, Nintendo no longer needed Ikegami’s assistance.

The recently-established Nintendo of America had a surplus of Radarscope boards that they could not sell. In March 1981, it was decided to create a new game to repurpose these boards into usable stock, and development of Donkey Kong began. Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo came up with the story and play mechanics, and designed the characters; from these, Ikegami programmed and developed the game. Nintendo also created the sound and other parts of the game, but the boards themselves were manufactured by Ikegami and delivered to Nintendo.

Nintendo and Ikegami signed the development contract for Donkey Kong in April 1981. By that contract, Nintendo paid ¥10 million to Ikegami for development. It is said that Nintendo purchased only 8000 boards at ¥70,000 each. Ikegami’s contract said that Nintendo was not to copy the program on their own, and could not allow any third party to, either. However, one very important element was not decided in this contract: Who owned the rights to the program itself.

Nintendo started development of Donkey Kong Junior in March 1982, and at that point no longer had a need to contract development to Ikegami. The program code from Donkey Kong was reverse engineered, and some of the original code remained in the completed Donkey Kong Junior, even into production.

However, a judgment was passed down in December 1982 concerning Taito’s Space Invaders Part II, which declared that computer code was copyrightable as written work. After this, Ikegami insisted that they owned the rights to Donkey Kong’s program. Nintendo, on the other hand, said that their contract with Ikegami was simply a sub-contract. The contract had been paid, so the rights belonged to Nintendo, who had initiated development. This was in direct opposition to the condition in the contract saying Nintendo could not copy their own game.

Ikegami also had a problem with Donkey Kong Junior. Nintendo had produced Donkey Kong Junior based on the code from Donkey Kong without permission from Ikegami. They claimed this violated their copyright to the code, and demanded that damages be paid. Furthermore, Nintendo had shipped close to 100,000 units of Donkey Kong. Ikegami claimed that more than 80,000 copied boards had been made by Nintendo, and requested 10% of the sales from those units.

Nintendo, who claimed Ikegami did not hold the rights to the Donkey Kong program, asked for an injunction against Ikegami in June 1983 to confirm this. Then, in July, Ikegami claimed damages concerning Donkey Kong (¥580 million in unpaid debt) and Donkey Kong Junior (damages unknown). This case included the previous legal action, and went to trial in the Tokyo District Court.

The case concerning Donkey Kong Junior continued for a long time, and had a significant effect on the industry. However, just before a judgment was reached, the matter was settled out of court. On March 26, 1990, the case was settled under unspecified conditions in the Tokyo District Court. As such, this case brought about by an outsource contract without copyright specification came to an end. However, the complaints, responses, and other documents were submitted as evidence during the trial.

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4 Responses to The Battle of Donkey Kong

  1. Mormon Jesus says:

    I approve of this post!

  2. Nick says:

    Ikegami probably does own the code, but … are you seriously asserting they developed Donkey Kong in its entirety? This is comical.

    • jotaroraido says:

      1. These are not my assertions, this is simply a translation of what Akagi wrote in his book.
      2. He never says Ikegami developed the game independently. They wrote the program code and manufactured the boards, while Nintendo designed the game.

  3. Pingback: The Gaming Historian – Who Programmed Donkey Kong? | 1 More Castle

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