Lessons from Monopoly® and the First Millionaire Game Inventor

By Gene Quinn
November 26, 2018

The story of Monopoly® provides inspiration to inventors who at first are told no, and for companies who acquire intellectual property rights.

Patent Lessons from Monopoly® and the First Millionaire Game Inventor

From U.S. Patent No. 2,026,082. To purchase this 11×14 Monopoly® patent print click here.

Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, was struggling to support his family during the Great Depression. It was during this time that he claimed to have fondly remembered summers in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and dreamed about being a real estate mogul. These diversions purportedly lead to him formulating what has become the most popular board game of all time – Monopoly®. Friends and family gathered to play the game, enjoying earning and spending large amounts of play money. Darrow felt certain he had a hit on his hands so he contacted Parker Brothers, who initially turned him down, but only after explaining that his game violated some 52 fundamental rules of a board successful game.  Thankfully for all those who have played and enjoyed the game over the years, a reported 500 million people and growing, Darrow was not deterred.

Undeterred, Darrow marketed the game himself. As fate would have it, a friend of Sally Barton, the daughter of Park Brothers’ founder, George Parker, bought the game. At the time Mrs. Barton’s husband was the President of Parker Brothers. One thing lead to another and eventually Parker Brothers became convinced that this game, with minor modifications, could be a huge success.

As a result of his invention Darrow became the first millionaire game inventor, thanks to royalty payments. The irony, however, is that Darrow may not have invented the game at all, but rather he may have taken a locally popular game and made only a few changes. By the time Parker Brothers realized that Darrow may not have been the true inventor the game was already a huge success. In order to protect the game and its investment the decision was made to buy up all patents and copyrights on any related game, thereby ensuring the monopoly on Monopoly®.

Thus, the story of Monopoly® provides inspiration to inventors who at first are told no, and for companies who acquire intellectual property rights.

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The first lesson for inventors is that you can indeed patent a board game. In fact, since 1976 there have been 1,241 US patents issued with “board game” being in the title of the patent itself, and 3,828 patents where “board game” appears somewhere within the patent. Many inventors skip the step of filing a patent application on their board game, which for those that turn out successful would be a mistake. Having patent protection on your board game allows you to prevent others from making, selling, using or importing a game that would infringe your patent. It also would give you an asset to transfer or license if there is enough interest in your game. Some of those 1,241 U.S. patents are design patents, which are a weaker type of patent that only protects ornamentation (i.e., the way the board game looks, not the method or rules of play), but a design patent is cheaper and much quicker to obtain, and is at least some protection. It may also provide a worthwhile advertising boost if marketed correctly. During the pendency of any patent application you can say “patent pending” and once a patent issues the game is “patented.”

For companies, the failure to investigate ownership of an invention prior to licensing or acquiring the rights can be extremely problematic. Many companies will investigate what patents are out there prior to making an offer to acquire a license or acquire the patent itself, thereby not falling into the potential trap faced by Parker Brothers; namely having an enormously successful property without owning all of the associated rights. Due diligence is always appropriate in any business dealing, with the amount of diligence and investigation corresponding to the amount of the investment and potential return. Of course, sometimes in the business world things move fast, mistakes are made, or perhaps a choice is made that the risk presented doesn’t seem that great and the expense of much diligence unwarranted given the likely return on investment. But diligence up front and acquiring rights before there is an issue, or walking away if things look to messy, may be the best choice unless the likely return will be great enough to warrant the risk. At the end of the day it is about making sure you operate in a business responsible manner rather than making decisions without appropriate consideration.

All worked out well for Darrow, but what if he had invested everything in the game, it took off and then others with superior rights were able to stop him in his tracks? This is a cautionary tale for inventors and the fact that Darrow got lucky should not to be lost. Moving forward without reasonable investigation that a patent search can provide is risky and can find you investing unnecessarily large sums of money in a project that will likely never get off the ground. Thus, it is always wise to start with a good patent search. It is better to spend an appropriate sum investigating on the front end. It will make any patent application you file better, because you will know where to focus your description to maximize the likelihood of articulating a positive uniqueness between your invention and the prior art. And, if there are real impediments to obtaining a patent you can cut the project before significant sums have been invested.

Image Source: Peronalized Signs by Lone Star Art.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 9 Comments comments. Join the discussion.

  1. John November 26, 2018 9:08 am

    I’m worried that patents will eventually be abolished.

  2. EG November 26, 2018 12:42 pm

    Hey Gene,

    Unfortunately, Monopoly almost killed the boardgaming hobby. Fortunately, Klaus Teuber came along to create Settlers of Catan (selling at least 18 million copies world-wide which includes expansions and variants) to save the boardgaming hobby in the mid-1990’s.

  3. Benny November 27, 2018 5:25 am

    “… since 1976 there have been 1,241 US patents issued with “board game” being in the title…”
    Interesting to learn how you arrived at that figure. I checked using 2 different search platforms and got 2 different results (although all 3 numbers, yours and mine, are in the same ballpark). Did you use the USPTO search service? Of all the services I’ve used, both free and subscription, I would rank the USPTO in last place for usefulness.

  4. Eric Berend November 27, 2018 9:57 am

    @ 2., ‘EG’:

    Excuse me?!!

    As a Playtester, Assistant Developer and independent game Designer who worked at SPI in the 1970’s, I have to say that’s a bit much fanboi reverence about Settlers of Catan.

    There has long been a board gaming hobby. As to ebbs and flows in the board game publishing *industry*, that is a different matter and not one to be easily and blithely so supercilious about. It is noteworthy that in general, game publishing companies have relied upon copyrights for their legal IP protection.

    SPI became owned by TSR, eventually. Hasbro now owns Wizards of the Coast who now owns esteemed Avalon Hill which was founded by Charles S. Roberts in 1952.

    SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.)was founded by James F. Dunnigan in 1969. GDW (Games Designer Workshop) was founded by four Designer/Developers led by Frank Chadwick in 1973. They published the immortal *Traveller* in 1977.

    TSR (originally known as Tactical Studies Rules), publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, was founded in 1973 by E. Gary Gygax. Steve Jackson Games (innovator of the ‘micro-game’) was founded in 1980 by the eponymous Steve Jackson.

    Different trends or perceived styles of board games have arisen at various times, historically. The introduction and adoption of ‘Euro-style’ board games with their time frame being the 1990’s, is hardly any different.

    Creative board game designers have frequently emerged, over time. Some of these, are at least as noteworthy as your Saint Teuber.

    Your high-handed, condescending tone is wildly inappropriate here; particular so, when designers, engineers and inventors all know that the success of a particular creation, both in terms of popularity and profit, is especially unknown and unpredictable, until after the fact.

  5. calgoddard November 27, 2018 10:11 am

    Gene –

    Thank you for your very interesting article.

    I would be interested in your opinion of the chances of the claims of Darrow’s U.S. Patent No. 2,026,082 surviving a hypothetical IPR challenge based on the teachings of U.S. Patent No. 1,509,312 of Phillips. Note that Darrow’s patent was granted exactly four months after his application was filed on August 31, 1935.

  6. Gene Quinn November 27, 2018 10:49 am

    calgoddard-

    I did notice that the patent was granted in exactly four months. The dates stood out because August 31 is my birthday (although 35 years later) and it was issued on Christmas Eve.

    I took a quick look at the ‘312 patent, and it doesn’t look good for Darrow had IPR been around. That is no doubt why Parker went around buying up all the IP rights to the game, which was a good business move. Here is a link to the patent in question, which does look remarkably like Monopoly at first glance, and with rather similar rules (at least in spirit).

    https://patents.google.com/patent/US1509312A/en

  7. EG November 28, 2018 6:00 am

    One Eric to Another,

    My sincere apologies for my gross “oversimplification” of the boardgaming industry. My primary aim was to point out that games like Monopoly are what drove me away from the boardgaming hobby. I view Settlers of Catan as simply an example of what brought me back to it. I truly intended no slight on what you and others have done for this hobby I truly love, especially as I remain “video game challenged.”

    From your description of your gaming pedigree, I see that your definitely an enthusiastic wargamer. I too was an enthusiastic wargamer through much of my youth, having owned and played many Avalon Hill games, starting with Waterloo and ending with 1914. Alas, as I entered college, my time devoted to wargaming waned. Now that I’m my mid-60’s, I’m back again into wargaming, having also been a playtester, primarily for the COIN series of games from GMT. My current preference in wargaming is for card driven games (CDGs) which I find easier to grasp the rules, and which is why the COIN series has been popular. Nothing against the “hex and counter” games, just that I find the rule books a bit more daunting for me.

    Please, please accept my apologies for ever slighting this hobby the we both obviously love.

  8. George November 30, 2018 6:30 pm

    What happened to my comment of 11/29/2018? Are you now filtering comments that you just don’t like, Gene?

    @ Eric Berend

    “It is noteworthy that in general, game publishing companies have relied upon copyrights for their legal IP protection.”

    I agree and think copyrights, and trademarks are the easiest, cheapest and probably best way to go for board games, since just changing a few rules wouldn’t be enough to avoid copyright infringement charges (and litigation). And, if it’s a hit, no one will want an imitation game anyway! Much faster from a marketing standpoint too.

    Your new game will either be a hit or miss within the first couple of years. Could take 8 years to get a patent on it (and if it’s ‘pending’ for 5 or more years, that doesn’t look very good, since a game isn’t exactly ‘cold fusion’). Once everyone knows the name and likes it – you’re protected like crazy! Who will want the knockoff from China? On the other hand. a knockoff (patented) scooter or vacuum that’s cheaper??? Good luck with that patent as protection!

  9. Lizzie Magie FAN December 10, 2018 5:30 am

    From NPR:

    Ever Cheat At Monopoly? So Did Its Creator: He [Charles Darrow] Stole The Idea From A Woman [Lizzie Magie]

    https://www.npr.org/2015/03/03/382662772/ever-cheat-at-monopoly-so-did-its-creator-he-stole-the-idea-from-a-woman

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