John Joseph Kirby Jr. was an American attorney who defended Nintendo against a lawsuit from Universal Studios in 1984 over the character of Donkey Kong, because he was too similar to King Kong. He would later have the character Kirby named after him. Kirby died on October 2, 2019, due to complications from myelodysplastic syndrome.


Kirby worked at the United States Department of Justice as special assistant to John Doar, head of the Civil Rights Division. During this time, Kirby gathered numerous voting records which showed widespread discrimination against African-Americans. This included literacy tests that were designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. Kirby also personally escorted several African-American children into segregated schools. Kirby would later be appointed Deputy Director to the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, founded after the Kent State Shootings.

After leaving the Justice department, Kirby entered private practice. He became chairman of Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon, a law firm in Wall Street, in New York City. Following the dissolution of Mudge Rose, he joined Latham and Walkins LLP. During his career, Kirby represented major companies such as PepsiCo., General Foods, and Pfizer (known then as Warner-Lambert.)

Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Kirby's most well known case was representing Nintendo against Universal City Studios following a lawsuit in 1984, during his time at Mudge Rose. Universal Studios claimed that the character Donkey Kong was an unlicensed version of their character King Kong. Kirby refuted with a previous lawsuit that involved Universal Studios and RKO, where it was said that the characters and story of King Kong were in the public domain, and thus Universal Studios had no legal rights over them. This argument won the case, and Kirby was considered to have saved Nintendo during their early foray into the video game market.

As a thank-you for defending them, Nintendo sent Kirby a $30,000 sailboat named Donkey Kong, and exclusive rights to use the name Donkey Kong for sailboats. Most notably, it was rumored that Kirby, the protagonist of the Kirby game series, was named after John Kirby. This was confirmed by Shigeru Miyamoto in an interview with Game Informer in 2011.[1] While not confirmed, it is also rumored that a copy of Kirby's Adventure was sent to John Kirby, who was flattered.

Personal Life

Kirby was born on October 22, 1939, in Falls Church, Virginia. His father, John Joseph Kirby Sr., was a lawyer with the federal government for over 40 years. Kirby was married twice. Kirby's second wife, Susan Cullman, was the daughter of Edgar M. Cullen, the CEO of a cigar company. Kirby had three children, who were all from his first marriage. He also had a stepdaughter.

Kirby died on October 2, 2019, due to complications from myelodysplastic syndrome.


  1. Turi, Tim (June 17, 2011). "Miyamoto Talks Wii U, Zelda, And Nintendo's Past". Game Informer. Retrieved December 20, 2019.