Protecting innovative games

30 Monopoly

Many people are put off from trying to patent their idea for a game by a widespread myth that games cannot be patented.  They choose therefore to try and rely on copyright or registered designs, which protect the board/screen layout or the shape of any pieces/icons.  Although these forms of protection are very useful and should be used where appropriate, they can be of quite limited scope when compared with that given by a patent. 

A quick search of patent literature however would show that patenting is very much an option.  For example, simply typing the words ‘chess game’ into a patent search engine brings up nearly 1700 published applications varying the shape and size of boards, introducing new pieces, new moves for the pieces etc.

Perhaps the myth has arisen because methods of playing games are excluded from patentability.  However, careful drafting of an application for a patent can avoid this exclusion and result in claims to a game-related invention which are valid and can be enforced against infringers.

One of the most famous patented board games is of course Monopoly® for which a patent was granted in 1935. Even this is widely held to be a derivative of an earlier game patented at the turn of the 20th Century. However, the patent system is such that improvements over already existing games can also be protected.

Important for the owners was that whilst the patent for Monopoly® was in force it allowed the competition to be kept at bay. This allowed Parker Brothers, who had bought the rights from the inventor, time to establish the game’s name and also the wider brand in the public’s mind. When the patent eventually ran out, the strength of the brand created was enough to help keep competitors out of the market and allow extension of the range. Today Hasbro, which now owns Parker Brothers, has trade mark protection for the board layout, individual squares and the playing pieces, enabling sales of around 10 million units per year.

For any aspect of Intellectual Property advice and overall strategy, please get in touch with the ip21 team.

Paul Harrison, Senior European Patent Attorney for ip21 Ltd.