On March 5th a South Korean tourist dressed as the Nintendo character Princess Peach hopped the curb in her rented, tuned up go-kart and violently rammed her vehicle into the wall of a Police Box near the Minato district’s Tokyo Tower landmark. A few weeks later, another Korean woman crashed her kart into a parked car while dressed like a Nintendo character. Both women had been part of a special ‘go-kart convoy’ organized by MariCar Inc., allowing them to legally race in the maze of Tokyo’s streets. But after being accused of copyright infringing practices, this bucket list tourist attraction may be coming to an end.
On Nintendo’s Radar
MariCar Inc. has landed itself in hot waters with video game industry giant and long-term Japanese institution Nintendo, and are currently duking it out in the courts. It is not difficult to see why the Kyoto-based game and console creator is seeking 10 million yen (around 92,000 USD) in damages. With MariCar’s service allowing would be go-kart racers a chance to drive on the streets of Tokyo growing increasingly popular with foreign travelers and on social media, Nintendo saw it as an infringement on their intellectual copyright. Not just because the name MariCar Inc. has obvious similarities to Nintendo’s hit go-kart video game Mario Kart, but also because of the costumes MariCar provides. These costumes include some of Nintendo’s most treasured game characters, along with a host of superhero outfits. But the case against MariCar is all but open shut.
MariCar Inc. has so far been able to successfully distance themselves from the claims of copyright infringement by rewriting their website to exclude overt references to the Nintendo IPs and by committing what some are calling a form of ‘copyright laundering’. By making the company that rents out the popular costumes a separate entity to MariCar Inc, they can claim that their service does not in itself infringe on the copyright. Selling or renting out the costumes is also not tantamount to copyright infringement, and so people combining these two separate activities from separate entities is all above board, legally. The website has no been supplemented with the following disclaimer:
Maricar is in no way a reflection of the game ‘Mario Kart’. Therefore, when riding the go-carts none of the following will be allowed. 1. No racing each other on the streets. 2. Do not throw banana peals or any other garbage on to the streets. 3. Do not throw red turtle shells or any other objects to each other.
Blatant, but not illegal.
Critics have warned that allowing MariCar Inc. to successfully evade the lawsuit might spell disaster for intellectual property rights in Japan, with hundreds of businesses eager to commit similar ‘copyright laundering’. It is clear that MariCar is leveraging the Nintendo IP to increase their own success and it is also clear that they are encouraging people to share footage of themselves driving the karts dressed as Nintendo characters. Even googling the much used Japanese abbreviation for Mario Kart ‘Mari Car/マリカ’ immediately brings up photos of the MariCar Inc. go-kart service.
The intent is overt, but whether it amounts to copyright abuse in the eyes of the court remains to be seen.