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Exactly Who Owns The King Kong Rights? How’s Disney Making A TV Show?


Disney has announced that a King Kong TV show is in development at the studio, raising the question of who exactly owns the rights to the classic movie monster. Overseen by Aquaman director James Wan, this King Kong series will debut on Disney+ and is expected to bring the giant ape into the modern age. Given that the project is unrelated to Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse film franchise, which is distributed by Warner Bros., audiences may be wondering how King Kong has managed to wind up in different movies and TV shows from multiple studios.

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The original King Kong was released by RKO Pictures in 1933. Full of romance, drama, adventure, and groundbreaking filmmaking techniques, today, the film is one of many flashpoints of the kaiju genre and perhaps the best to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A less-remembered sequel arrived the same year, followed by appearances in Toho’s monster movies in the 1960s, official remakes from Paramount and Universal in 1976 and 2005, respectively, and eventually his reunion with Godzilla for a few MonsterVerse movies, including an upcoming sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong.

Related: King Kong’s Lost Movie Beat Godzilla’s Kaiju Movie Debut


With King Kong continuing to be a major part of the MonsterVerse, Disney’s series centered on the character is certainly confusing. The answer to the question of who owns the rights is complicated because it seems Kong’s movies don’t solely define him. Various court cases resulted in King Kong being labeled a pop culture staple originating from books, movies, and everything in between. Because of nebulous terms and complex legal battles determining what projects the giant ape stars in and how they’re adapted., the character can now appear in different media from a variety of companies.


King Kong Movie & TV Rights Explained

Many have claimed to own King Kong, with Merian C. Cooper among the first, as he had created the character for the 1933 film. In the 1960s, when giant monsters were popular and the first crossover matchup of King Kong and Godzilla went into production, Cooper attempted to establish that he owned the rights to the former. Citing letters from RKO about licensing that he failed to produce, the filmmaker took Universal to court over their collaboration with Toho on King Kong vs. Godzilla. However, without proof, Cooper was only granted ownership of publication rights based on the original movie’s novelization.


When time came for the 1976 remake, the courts had to sort out who owned what. RKO, Universal, and Cooper’s son were all met with the decision that King Kong was in the public domain since his creator failed to renew the copyright on the 1933 film’s novelization. The ruling became known as the “Cooper judgment,” which permitted Universal to proceed with its own remake loosely inspired by the novelization, and RKO had to pay decades worth of licensing profits as the Cooper estate reclaimed basic elements of the classic King Kong story.

After buying the rights owned by the Cooper estate, Universal took Nintendo to court in 1982 over similar elements found in the video game Donkey Kong. However, reflecting on the messy history and vague terms of the character’s portrayal, it was reinforced by the courts that the property had no singular origin and therefore much of Kong’s mythology was in the public domain. Because of the Nintendo precedent, other companies would be allowed to tell new stories about King Kong.


Related: MonsterVerse Problems The Godzilla TV Show Needs To Address (& Fix)

Will Disney+’s King Kong Connect To The MonsterVerse?

Since his appearance in the movie Kong: Skull Island, the MonsterVerse has seemed to be King Kong’s main home in entertainment media. This has been further assumed with the character’s return in the battle-driven crossover Godzilla vs. Kong, its forthcoming sequel, and various TV series plans for the franchise. However, it’s clear Disney’s show will stand on its own, working with a new King Kong mythos developed in collaboration with the Cooper estate and independently of the MonsterVerse. Set to focus on a modern-day Skull Island and Kong’s backstory, it’s a curious but promising addition to Disney’s expansive collection of classic stories.

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