Patents for Board Games

Patents for Board Games

It may come as a surprise to some that board games and card games are, under certain conditions, patentable in the UK and in the USA, and patents for board games can be hugely valuable. In fact, one of the best known board games in the world was patented, although the patent didn’t realise its true value until after it had been sold on by its creator – and she didn’t receive the financial reward, or the recognition, she deserved.

1902 – 1920s: The Landlord’s Game

Today, Monopoly is one of the oldest and most popular board games in the Western world, but it started life as “The Landlord’s Game” and was devised by a lady called Elizabeth Magie, with the object of showing how rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants.

In 1902, Magie devised an early version of the game and was granted a patent for it in 1904.  The game became a popular pursuit amongst her circle of friends, but didn’t really gain any significant traction until the 1920s, when it developed a slightly wider following, mostly amongst students. Magie applied for a second patent in 1923 for an improved version of The Landlord’s Game, and the patent was granted in 1924 as US Patent No. 1509312

1930s: Parker Brothers

But we would probably never have heard of it, except that in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression in the USA, a man called Charles Darrow copied Magie’s game, renamed it ‘Monopoly’, and sold it to Parker Brothers. 

Monopoly became an overnight success and Parker Brothers, determined to own all rights to the games, tracked down Magie and offered her $500 (around $9700 in today’s currency) as a one-off payment for her patent. She agreed but only when they agreed to also publish The Landlord’s Game in its original form. They did, and Magie can be seen in the image below holding the two versions of the game.

Elizabeth Magie

However, after a few copies of The Landlord’s Game had been produced, they dropped it, along with any mention of Magie’s role in the creation of Monopoly.

1973: Recognition

For many years, Charles Darrow was given the credit for creating the game.  Magie died in 1948, at the age of 82, and didn’t live to see the day when she would finally be globally recognised as its original creator.  In fact, the truth apparently did not come to light until 1973, when an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, was in a legal dispute with Parker Brothers over his own game ‘Anti-Monopoly’. He came across Magie’s patents as part of his research and her role as the game’s inventor was acknowledged in the court records.

Present Day

Over a hundred years after Elizabeth Magie first devised The Landlord’s Game, its legacy lives on in the many different versions of Monopoly still being sold today. Monopoly has been licensed in over 100 countries worldwide and printed in more than 37 languages. Of course, the patent has long since expired, but its value until its expiry in the early 1940s is indisputable.

It is somewhat ironic that the creator of a game intended to demonstrate the potential evils of capitalism should have been railroaded by a large company.  Although she clearly recognised the importance of owning the patent rights, she may not have appreciated their true value, although Parker Brothers clearly did!  And even if she had, in the 1930s, it cannot have been easy for a woman, especially one who was, by then, in her 60s, to make a stand against a large company like Parker Brothers and hold out for a better deal.  She could not have known just how valuable these rights would become, of course, but if she had insisted on royalty payments, she would have received a lot more than $500, not to mention the recognition she deserved. 

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