Is Palworld just “Pokémon with guns” or is it an original work? A Northeastern University legal expert says there might be a smoking gun –– it just might not be enough
Palworld has taken the video game industry by storm –– but not just for the right reasons.
Pocketpair’s survival game, which has often been referred to as “Pokémon with guns,” went on sale on Jan. 19 and sold more than 8 million copies in less than six days. Earlier this week, there were nearly 2 million concurrent players running around with their animated hybrid animal Pals on Steam, the largest digital distribution platform for PC games. If you aren’t playing Palworld, you probably know someone who is.
But Palworld’s impressive first week hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Pocketpair. The game has also come under fire, with some accusing Pocketpair of copyright infringement or plagiarism for Palworld’s similarities to Pokémon. Palworld is mechanically different than the Pokémon games in many ways, but some have pointed to not just visual but technical similarities between the monsters that are central to both games. The accusations culminated in The Pokémon Company releasing a statement saying it would launch an investigation. If rights have been infringed, the company said it would “take appropriate measures” to ensure its intellectual property rights are protected.
Whether The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, its parent company which is known for being litigious, decide to pursue a case against Pockepair could decide the fate of one of gaming’s biggest recent success stories. But is Palworld really just a Pokémon ripoff or is it an original game that just draws inspiration from everybody’s favorite pocket monsters?
Alexandra Roberts, a professor of law and media at Northeastern University who specializes in copyright law, says cases like this are rarely cut and dry.
The idea of copyright infringement is meant to draw the line between homage or reference and outright copying or misappropriating copyrighted works. Roberts says drawing the line between the two can be complex and very context-specific, but there are certainly legal questions worth exploring with Palworld and Pocketpair.
“If I’m a lawyer for Nintendo, I’m thinking about copyright and trademark right now,” Roberts says.
It’s worth noting what exactly copyright protects. Copyright is designed to protect specific artistic expression, not “the idea of a hybrid animal” or a “style of artwork or style of a virtual world,” according to Roberts.
“In this case, that might be static drawings of these characters, it could be video of them, it could be a video game,” Roberts says. “All of those things qualify for copyright protection because copyright protection is for works of creative expression that are fixed in a tangible medium.”
Where copyright exists, the copyright owner then gets a whole series of rights, like reproduction, adaptation, publication, performance and display. Roberts says adaptation rights are the most relevant for Palworld.
“[Nintendo] can license it out, they can stop others from exercising it,” Roberts says. “Then if somebody else uses something that looks a lot like that copyrightable thing … we move to the question of infringement.”
To determine whether there’s infringement, these cases often involve “objective comparison by experts” and “general impressions by ordinary observers,” she says. If substantial similarity or what looks like copyright infringement is found between the two works, then you look to see if there are any fair use defenses.
“If you had a video game with 30 different characters and one of them looked a whole lot like a particular Pokémon character, like Mewtwo, then maybe that would be de minimis or such a small portion that we might not be so upset about it, then it might be more of fair use,” Roberts says. “But here it looks like we’ve got so many of the characters replicated that if we find substantial similarity in the first place, that would probably weigh against fair use.”
One of the most important questions when it comes to copyright is, simply, was there copying? That’s where some of the claims against Palworld get more serious. A Twitter/X user named Byo posted videos that showed startling similarities between the 3D models used as the foundation for characters in Pokémon and Palworld.
Roberts says these accusations could be very important if a case is brought forward, although they wouldn’t be enough on their own to find Pocketpair guilty of copyright infringement.
“[The 3D models are] really relevant to the analysis, but it’s not a slam dunk,” Roberts says. “It’s certainly a smoking gun on copying, but it isn’t necessarily the kind of smoking gun that gets you all the way to a finding of infringement.”
She says there are also questions related to trademark infringement that could be raised by Nintendo. Nintendo takes its intellectual property very seriously and has trademarked the word Pokémon and the names of several characters, like Charmander, Bulbosaur and Mewtwo. The company also has a registered trademark on Pikachu’s depiction in video games, on physical hardware and in other physical goods.
If a case is brought and the courts find that people who play Palworld or are exposed to it “think that it’s a Nintendo game or think that it’s the actual Pokémon characters,” then “you have a claim that looks more like a trademark claim and unfair competition claim,” Roberts says.
“Then also if they show they have a famous trademark here –– like if Pikachu is a famous trademark and Pikachu appears or if any of these names are used or there are really similar names –– then there’s a tarnishment argument,” Roberts says. “‘This game has guns in it and there’s the ability to do things that are violent, and that actually harms the Pokémon brand, which is associated with more pure and kid-friendly kinds of things.’”
With no concrete legal action pending, it’s still too early to tell whether Palworld will stand up to these legal arguments. But the scale of Palworld’s success and the fact that the general public is raising these questions makes this a potentially impactful case for the games industry and beyond.
“The question of how close you can get to the thing that inspires you in a way that people are aware of it but maybe not confused by it, what’s OK?” Roberts says. “Cases like this set precedents that are really important for brands and artists going forward.”