It can no longer be denied that the first jingle bells of the festive season are upon us. And one of the most common ways in which families will be celebrating is by throwing dice, moving pieces and hoarding bundles of miniature currency. Board games are still hugely popular, withstanding their pixel-powered rivals by providing a simpler – and arguably more civilised – form of leisure.
They’re also timeless. We have the Ancient Egyptians to thank for the concept of board games, and they took it far more seriously than any group of Yuletide sherry sippers. The game Senet – from circa 3,500 BC – was seen by thoughtful pyramid dwellers as such an important metaphor for the path of life that it was pictured on religious murals and placed in the tombs of mummified rulers. But as Ancient Egypt never had a patent and trademark office, with invention claims scratched out on papyrus scrolls, we will never know who invented Senet.
Same goes for chess. From the 13th Century alone, archaeologists have recovered a near-complete set of Iranian playing pieces, plus a Spanish fresco showing two Medieval knights plotting their moves. However, chess is thought to have stemmed from 6th-Century India, crafted by hands unknown. For the strongest early links between board games and intellectual property (IP), we must fast-forward to 1903… and a get-rich-quick game invented by a Quaker anti-capitalist. Seriously.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Virginia resident Lizzie J Magie was a woman on a mission. Fair-minded, modest and devout, Magie had become concerned with the artificial inflation of land values, typically driven by landlords who could raise rent at will just to thicken their wallets. As such, businesses never knew when their profits would be undermined, or even extinguished: they were entirely at the mercy of landlords’ whims.
Convinced to the point of activism that only a tax on landlords would make them keep rent down, Magie pondered how she could teach the good, honest people of the USA that they were being taken for a ride. Perhaps the thought she had was something like: ‘Aha! I know… I’ll put them in the shoes of a landlord so they can finally grasp how devious they are!’ Whatever the case, the result was The Landlord’s Game, for which Magie filed a patent application in 1903. The patent (US 740,626) was granted in January the following year.
In Magie’s conception, the game put Quaker values upfront from the very first square. Rather than urging her players to ‘Go!’ Magie hit them with the solemn motto ‘Labour Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages’. So, only solid toil could bring about honest money – not the process of using land rights to squeeze other businesses dry. Magie’s instructions were no less severe: The object of the game, she insisted, was to illustrate to players ‘how, under the present or prevailing system to land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprisers, and also how the single tax would discourage speculation’.
Magie’s brainchild grew popular among those who shared her feelings on the economy. The unspoken rule was that those who wished to adapt the game must do it themselves with their own materials, rather than sell their versions to manufacturers. So, about seven years after Magie filed her patent, landlord-tax sympathisers Scott and Guy Nearing made their own board, featuring building-shaped pieces as well as currency to give the game more of a ‘city’ feel. They called their version Monopoly.
At this point, the game began to spread across the US and outside its original playing circle – and the message was quickly lost in the medium. Scores of Americans seized the chance to indulge freely in the landlord lifestyle, and by the 1920s, the game was a hit in university frat houses. In the halls of Delta Kappa Epsilon of Williams College, Pennsylvania, student Daniel W Layman became hooked on Monopoly. So hooked, in fact, that he asked a local engineering firm to tool up some new pieces and a professional-looking board that he could protect under IP laws.
With the game’s cult origins in mind, Layman proceeded under the impression that its technical features were in the public domain rather than patented. So he chose to protect his parallel version by trademark instead. Branded as Finance, Layman’s game did steady business in toyshops, while fans of the homemade method carried on supporting old-school Monopoly. As it was much harder in the 1920s and 1930s to control imitations, numerous ‘fan’ versions continued to trickle out.
Enter Charles Darrow. A man with a decidedly opaque CV, Darrow still knew an opportunity when he saw it. Noticing that neither Magie’s patent nor Layman’s trademark were being aggressively defended, he bought them both, becoming the de facto rights holder for The Landlord’s Game and Finance. Preferring the title Monopoly, which had been used in cult circles but never trademarked, Darrow registered it for his own, consolidated take on the game, and a commercial behemoth was born – shifting almost one million units in 1935, its first year of sale. A game once devised as a stern warning against monopolies had become one.
Perhaps Magie’s greatest legacy was a lesson on the importance of IP protection – and enforcement – in the toys and games arena. So many board games have been produced since Monopoly that inventors must work incredibly hard to ignore prior art and be original. But if one of them hits on a winner, it can be protected right across the IP landscape. Rules, designs and other technical features can be patented; other design elements such as the graphics on a board will be covered by copyright; its brand would be a registered trademark, and its website would have its own domain name. So… think you have the next after-dinner hit on YOUR hands? It’s your move.