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The Lawbringer: Dispelling the panda myths


Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

With the announcement of Mists of Pandaria and the inclusion of the Pandaren race in World of Warcraft, the most-asked question that I received was "How is this possible with the laws in China against killing pandas in video games?" The second most-asked question was "How is this possible when Kung Fu Panda will just sue Blizzard?" After I got over the initial hilarity of imagining the actual Jack Black-voiced Kung Fu Panda taking a dude to court, I realized that the myths about China's involvement with pandas in games, as well as what constitutes a real cause of action in terms of copying characters, are finally issues at the forefront of WoW topics.

The Lawbringer is all about pandas today. You might be sick of them, you might love them, or heck, you might be on the panda fence. I can promise you that even if you aren't a Pandaren fan, you just might learn a little something or two from today's all-panda fun. Sit back, relax, get all Zen-like, and let's see what the Pandaren have to offer us.

Why not sooner?

There are a lot of myths out there about why Blizzard never introduced the Pandaren race earlier than now. The Pandaren has been and still was one of the most requested races by players to be added to the game. Their Blizzard origins come from artist Samwise Didier, who originally used his Pandaren creations on greeting cards and personal drawings for his family. The Pandaren made their way into Warcraft III on Illidan's glaives as well as through Pandaren hero Chen Stormstout, friend of Rexxar during the Orc campaign in The Frozen Throne. Pandaren have also been the stewards of the Blizzard April fool's jokes in years past, so many people considered them a joke, all things considered.

One of those prevailing myths about why Pandaren haven't been fully realized in game sooner was that the Chinese governmental body that approves games for distribution, the Ministry of Culture, had some sort of rule or law that the panda should not be depicted in media being hurt or killed. This is just not true. In fact, there really isn't any type of law like that. There are some crazy laws on the books with regards to pandas, like the millions of dollars in fees zoos have to pay to keep pandas out of China, but not anything with regards to media. In fact, there are a bunch of Chinese-made games with Asian-inspired expansion packs, races, and entire MMOs based around panda people.

So why did China have a problem with Pandaren?

The root of the Pandaren problem wasn't in a law or regulation. Many have speculated that Chinese aversion to the original Pandaren drawings by Samwise had to do with the Pandaren being characterized as samurai in traditional samurai clothing. The panda is inherently Chinese, but the samurai armor and styles that Samwise had drawn them in had the trappings of Japanese culture. The Chinese and Japanese have a long, storied, and problematic history that makes this type of cross-culture expression somewhat looked down upon.

After a while, the Pandaren characters lost their samurai warrior clothing and instead donned the traditional black and white Chinese linen garb and conical straw hat. This, presumably, made the Pandaren more palatable for the Chinese and paved the way for the Pandaren we see today. If you've ever wanted a more clear-cut, teachable moment in video game translation and localization, this is it.

So no, the Chinese authorities and ministry of culture do not have a law on the books banning panda people from getting popped with some magic spells or beaten down in PVP. WoW's troubles in China with releasing expansions, content, or other related products are merely political in nature, having to do with their relationship to the companies that they have contracted with for distribution and development. The ministry of culture does have laws that forbid foreign companies from engaging in joint partnerships, and the NetEase/the9 debacle surrounding the release of Wrath of the Lich King was definitely attributable to "laws on the books." Pandaren? Nope.

Not an actual in-game image of Mists of Pandaria.
Jack Black better do the male Pandaren voice ...

The other email I got in droves (and I wish I were using this word in an inflated sense, hyperbolically, if you will) was what Kung Fu Panda thinks of all of this. Well, for one, Kung Fu Panda doesn't think anything about this. He's off saving the world from Ian McShane. He did the voice of the villain in that movie, right? I love Ian McShane.

No, if anyone would be upset, it would be Dreamworks Animation, the company that produced the film, as well as its distribution partner Paramount. The real question is whether or not enough of Mists of Pandaria looks too much like Kung Fu Panda for there to be a cause of action against Blizzard for ripping off Dreamworks' film. There are a few factors to consider:
  • Is the work in the same medium?
  • Could a consumer get confused as to which brand is being represented?
  • Can you even own the concept of a kung-fu-fighting, anthropomorphic panda man?
The answer to all of the above is probably no, which lends itself to the conclusion that Mists of Pandaria and Kung Fu Panda are not similar enough for a consumer to be confused enough. See, it all boils down to whether Blizzard is trying to steal that lucrative panda audience away from Dreamworks by creating something so similar in scope and story that a consumer could be confused. Sure, Dreamworks has a games division, and there are Kung Fu Panda games, but Mists of Pandaria is clearly branded as a World of Warcraft product, and the concept of a panda doing kung fu is just too broad for protection.

Think about it this way: I can copyright specific works of fiction and certain specific aspects of that story that go along with the whole, but general concepts and story tropes are not protectable. If I wrote a story about two star-crossed lovers who can't be with each other because of familial tensions and fighting, the corpse of Shakespeare isn't going to take me to court. Similarly, if I wrote a book about zombies, author Max Brooks won't have anything to sue me over. However, if I wrote a book about a roving reporter during the zombie war, there might be something there, à la World War Z (which you should all read). Remember when The DaVinci Code hit it big and authors from all around the world came out of the woodwork to say that they already came up with the idea of a super-smart symbologist who tracks down the lost heirs of Jesus Christ? I actually worked on one of these cases, and it was truly an experience.

Copyright lawsuits come about when two pieces of art or media are too similar to a consumer such that the copies could be mistaken for the original or as a derivative work of the original. Let's stay with the Kung Fu Panda example. If you're a Netflix Instant Watch subscriber, you've most likely seen a movie called Chop Kick Panda show up in one of your queues. Chop Kick Panda is about as rip-off-y as you get in terms of story, character design, and tone. The characters in each film are practically the same. Seriously, go watch the first three minutes of Chop Kick Panda and tell me someone didn't watch Kung Fu Panda and just happen to make their own movie.

Is that a comprehensive look at the copyright issues dealing with story tropes? Nah. Is it enough for this particular topic? It sure is. Mists of Pandaria and Kung Fu Panda can live in harmony and peace, together in a world where pandas doing martial arts don't infringe on each other. Balance in all things, etc.

See you guys next week.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at

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