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John Kirby (1939–2019), inspired Nintendo’s Kirby character

by Linnea Crowther

It’s not just anybody who has a Nintendo character named after them. But John Kirby, who died this week at 79, wasn’t just anybody.

In his obituary from the New York Times, Kirby’s family tells the story of how Kirby, an attorney, first made major strides in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s as he uncovered evidence of voter suppression in the South that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As schools were desegregated in the ’60s, Kirby offered hands-on help by escorting black students into schools alongside the federal marshals who made sure the law was upheld.

It was a brilliant beginning to his career and enough to ensure Kirby would be remembered. But he did more — he went on to defend Nintendo in a game-changing lawsuit.


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Nintendo was just starting to make a splash with its video games in 1982, when Universal Studios sued them for copyright infringement. They alleged that Nintendo’s hot new videogame, Donkey Kong, was too similar to Universal’s property: the character of King Kong.

Nintendo brought in Kirby, who successfully argued that not only was Donkey Kong clearly different from King Kong; Universal didn’t have exclusive rights to the public-domain character King Kong in the first place. The lawsuit was dismissed, and Nintendo went on to build Donkey Kong into one of the most successful video games in history.

Without Kirby’s smart defense, Nintendo might have fizzled before they ever got a foothold in the burgeoning video game industry. And they clearly knew what a debt they owed Kirby — the company’s lead designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, went on to name the character Kirby, star of the Kirby series and a highlight of Super Smash Bros., after the lawyer who saved the day.

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