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John J. Kirby, lawyer and namesake of the Nintendo character, dies at 79

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Defended the company in a copyright claim against Donkey Kong

John Kirby, the longtime Nintendo attorney and the namesake of fan-favorite character Kirby, died on Wednesday. He was 79. Kirby was given the honor by famed designer Shigeru Miyamoto when the blobby pink character was created for 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land.

In addition to his work for Nintendo, Kirby’s clients included Pepsi and America Online, but his obituary notes he was most proud of his work for the Justice Department during the 1960s. As special assistant to the head of the department’s Civil Rights division, Kirby’s work on voting records demonstrated widespread discrimination against African-Americans in the South and led to the creation and passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Following his work in public service, Kirby joined a white-shoe Wall Street law firm and went on to represent several high profile clients. His work for Nintendo included defending the company in a 1984 suit brought by Universal Studios, alleging that Donkey Kong infringed its King Kong copyright. In the case, Kirby successfully argued that Universal had itself proven in a 1975 lawsuit that King Kong belonged to the public domain. The victory in federal court established Nintendo as a prominent, new player in the American media landscape.

John Joseph Kirby, Jr. was born Oct. 22, 1939 in Falls Church, Va. to Rose L. Mangan and John Joseph Kirby, Sr., a career lawyer for the federal government. He was a graduate of Fordham College, where he was student body president and a Rhodes scholar, earning a masters degree from Merton College at Oxford University. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.

Kirby’s obituary notes that, in addition to the Kirby character tribute, Nintendo also gave him a sailboat, “aptly named the ‘Donkey Kong,’ which he took great pleasure in sailing with his family,” near their Connecticut home.