Though the discourse surrounding Palworld “plagiarizing” or “copying” Pokemon has cooled off since its initial release, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some trouble ahead for 2024’s surprise blockbuster. Palworld developer Pocketpair could be facing an uphill battle in courtrooms regarding what appears to be conclusive proof of the company using models directly pulled from Pokemon games.
When Palworld was first revealed it was brushed off as yet another Pokemon clone. That’s going to be the case with any game that has monster-collecting elements, but it’s doubly so with Palworld. The game makes little effort to hide the fact that most of its “Pal” creatures are directly based on Pokemon, despite significant gameplay differences compared to most Pokemon games.
The Pokemon Company issued a statement stating that it is investigating a game that is suspected of infringing on its copyright. Though it didn’t specifically name Palworld, it’s clear what the corporation was discussing.
gameland.gg spoke with experts on both business law and game design regarding this investigation. Included in this was whether the game truly copied Pokemon, and what the legal implications could be.
Did Palworld steal from Pokemon? Signs point to yes
An anonymous Twitter user using the handle Byofrog posted several side-by-side comparisons of the models of Palworld Pals and upscaled models of Pokemon.
Questions were raised about the legitimacy of their claims, so gameland.gg spoke to a video game industry veteran with credits in modeling and art production across multiple AAA titles. They stated that the similarities suggest something beyond simply being “inspired” by Pokemon and requested anonymity, citing the hostile discourse surrounding the game.
“My best guess is that the art assignment was ‘trace over these exact Pokemon, but change a couple things so it’s just different enough that they can’t sue us,’” the artist said.
“Tracing” in 3D modeling is effectively what it sounds like. The in-game model is imported into an editor and can be drawn over in two dimensions. Doing so from multiple angles allows artists to create a new model that is technically new, but still effectively identical. From there, new elements can be added and elements can be changed to create something akin to an original design.
“They probably extracted the actual meshes from Pokemon and used them as a modeling reference. Not actually copying the thing itself, just ‘tracing’ over it in 3D and changing some stuff, but keeping it mostly the same,” the artist said.
Alongside this, others began delving into the 3D models of Pals and comparing them with existing Pokemon. While there were visible similarities between certain Pals and Pokemon, some go a step further and are seemingly built utilizing assets ripped directly from Pokemon games.
Azurobe in particular has been at the center of this. Multiple individuals have taken the Pal’s model and discovered strong evidence that it uses assets ripped directly from two different Pokemon; Primarina and Serperior. While the surface-level similarities are clear, it goes further than that.
One of these individuals, who describes themself as a technical animator in the game industry, discovered that the “skeleton” Azurobe uses for animations perfectly aligns with Serperior. Another person looking into Azurobe found similar results and also discovered that the hair and hues of its model are effectively identical to those of Primarina.
The conclusion in all of this is that it’s almost certain that Palworld used at least one model that was directly pulled from Pokemon. If this is indeed the case, it gives The Pokemon Company a stronger case when it comes to potential legal action against Palworld.
gameland.gg reached out to Pocketpair for a statement, but did not receive a response by time of publication.
Palworld can’t be sued for similar character designs
Much of the criticism of Palworld has centered around the designs of its creatures dubbed “Pals.”
These monsters largely fill the same role that Pokemon do in their respective games; being collectible and usable in combat. Many of them also share extremely similar designs. Speaking in interviews, the CEO of Palworld has acknowledged Pokemon as a source of inspiration for the series.
Palworld critics have latched onto this and suggested that it infringes upon Pokemon’s copyrights. This isn’t actually the case. While Palworld’s monster designs draw clear inspiration from Pokemon, that doesn’t mean they infringe upon any copyrights. Not only that, but copyright laws are meant to afford the space for iteration upon existing ideas.
“Society wants people to be remixing their ideas, wants people to be going in there and thinking about new ways to approach something. That’s how we get new things…ultimately the law and the first amendment in the United States wants you to be able to use things that have been created in new and inventive ways for the betterment of society,” business lawyer Richard Hoeg said in his Virtual Legality podcast.
Despite aesthetic similarities and monster-collecting mechanics, the games are wildly different from one another. Pokemon is a turn-based RPG that tasks players with climbing their way up the ranks of a league in order to face its standing champion. Palworld is a survival game where players can collect monsters to use as tools, weapons, or laborers.
Even if there was more of a similarity between their gameplay, that wouldn’t be an issue. Even if a new character is evocative of an existing one, and even if two things are conceptually similar, it doesn’t inherently venture into copyright infringement territory.
“The most fundamental understanding of copyright and intellectual property in the United States…is that ideas, methods, and systems are not subject to protection. Said another way, if you have an idea for an electric mouse, you can’t protect the concept of an electric mouse. You can protect the way that you express an electric mouse…but you can’t prevent the next person from making an electric mouse,” Hoeg said.
All in all, while a significant part of Palworld’s appeal is its visual similarity to Pokemon, it’s not something The Pokemon Company could effectively pursue legal action over. That doesn’t mean that Pocketpair is in the clear, though. The trouble for Palworld stems from what appears to be the direct usage of Pokemon’s 3D models.
Is The Pokemon Company going to sue over Palworld?
It is unknown if The Pokemon Company is going to pursue legal action against Palworld developer Pocketpair.
The Pokemon Company issued a statement on its corporate website that it is investigating a video game that possibly infringed upon its IP. Though it didn’t explicitly name Palworld, the description left no room for doubt over what the company was talking about.
“We have received many inquiries regarding another company’s game released in January 2024. We have not granted any permission for the use of Pokemon intellectual property or assets in that game. We intend to investigate and take appropriate measures to address any acts that infringe on intellectual property rights related to the Pokemon,” the statement says.
The statement came on January 25, 2024 and so far, there hasn’t been any indication that things have moved past investigating. This isn’t surprising as The Pokemon Company has to build a case, optimize its chances of victory, and satisfy its shareholders.
First and foremost, even a strong case doesn’t guarantee success. While the social media age and the power of DMCA takedowns lead many to believe that companies can effortlessly erase anything vaguely related to their IPs, going to court and proving unauthorized copying of copyrighted materials is much more challenging.
gameland.gg spoke directly with Hoeg about the situation and the dynamics of a potential case. He indicated that The Pokemon Company could be in a favorable position, but did not indicate that things would be a slam dunk even with what’s known.
“Direct copying even with alterations, generally speaking, would be a problem,” Hoeg said. “If you assume overwhelming evidence the case is more likely to be successful. The difficult part is getting to overwhelming evidence.”
Given the amount of money on the line, the fact that Pocketpair likely has the financial means to put up a fight in court, and the overall stakes, The Pokemon Company may be taking a methodical approach to building its case. There are over 100 Pals in Palworld to look over, and The Pokemon Company will likely want to compare and contrast them with the models from all the recent mainline Pokemon titles and their many spin-offs.
Alongside that is jurisdiction. While both Pocketpair and The Pokemon Company are Japanese companies, the case could hypothetically play out anywhere.
“The suit could be brought almost anywhere Palworld is sold,” Hoeg told gameland.gg. “Most companies are going to prefer ‘home court’ though for expense and familiarity.”
Palworld is sold through Steam and Xbox consoles, which are both available in over 140 countries. This means that The Pokemon Company could effectively take the case anywhere in the world.
The Pokemon Company might be based in Japan but it has subsidiaries in many other countries and offices around the globe, some of which have their own legal departments. It’s possible The Pokemon Company will shop around for the most favorable territory in which to litigate.
Finally, there is also the matter of how The Pokemon Company is structured. Ownership of The Pokemon Company is split three ways between Nintendo, the series’ longtime development studios Game Freak, and trademark co-owners Creatures Inc. This means that there would need to be a consensus between the three companies regarding how to approach the case and what the ultimate goal is.
Could Pokemon shut down Palworld?
The Pokemon Company could hypothetically shut down Palworld if it won a copyright infringement case in court and pursued maximum damages.
“The [Pokemon] side would have the leverage of getting financial damages and possibly more if the infringement were proven to be deliberate, as well as the possible right to prevent further sales. Generally speaking that would result in a settlement before a final court determination,” Hoeg told gameland.gg.
Historically speaking, Nintendo has proven to be ruthless when it comes to legal action.
The company famously arranged for the arrest, extradition, and imprisonment of Gary Bowser, who pleaded guilty to working with a group that sold Nintendo Switch piracy hardware. He was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison and is set to have his wages garnished for the rest of his life to pay off the millions of dollars in damages that were awarded to Nintendo. The company stated that Bowser’s sentence was a “unique opportunity” to send a message about piracy.
But as stated, Nintendo doesn’t fully own The Pokemon Company and likely won’t have full control over possible legal action.
Fans of Palworld don’t actually have to worry about the game shutting down any time soon, though. The Pokemon Company hasn’t yet initiated any legal action against Pocketpair and if it does, there’s no guarantee of success. Even if The Pokemon Company wins its case, this could lead to several different outcomes that see the game continuing on.