Patent Lessons from Monopoly® and the First Millionaire Game Inventor

By Gene Quinn
April 18, 2010

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.

 

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.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and President & CEO ofIPWatchdog, Inc.. Gene founded IPWatchdog.com in 1999. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and Of Counsel to the law firm of Berenato & White, LLC. 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 17 Comments comments.

  1. Laura April 19, 2010 10:01 am

    Another fun fact – Marvin Gardens is not the correct spelling of that property. It is really Mar-Ven Gardens, so named because it is on the border of two towns, Margate and Ventnor, that are just south of Atlantic City.

  2. Chris April 19, 2010 1:05 pm

    Another fun fact:

    During World War 2, Allied forces sent monopoly games to soliders imprisoned in POW camps. The games often had secret compartments in the board which contained silk-screened maps, and some of the monopoly money was real money! The Monopoly game escape kits helped many British and US soldiers successfully escape the POW camps. Only years later was the Parker Bros. war effort in Monopoly games declassified.

    See the link for example.

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/12/05/mf.waropoly/index.html

  3. EG April 19, 2010 2:51 pm

    Gene,

    Monopoly was never a fun game for me. Too boring, too much playing out the string when one player gets way ahead, and too much work (I hated calculating what had to be paid when you landed on someone’s property and what you could get from mortgaging properties to pay off that person). I’m more into EuroGames like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. Also enjoy card games like Bang! and Fluxx. I’m just now getting back into war games (not Risk which is a favorite of my wife) which were a hobby of mine in my youth, and which my patent attorney brother Mark is a huge collector of. (and now the developer of the war game, Bataan!). Something I’d like to do more of when I decide to hang up my IP law spikes.

  4. BrianK April 19, 2010 3:11 pm

    Gene, have you seen this film about Bilski and the CAFC http://patentabsurdity.com/
    BrianK

  5. Steve M April 19, 2010 3:11 pm

    Anyone know of a patent/IP specific game(s) . . . patent(s) . . . or apps?

    Will all the twists and turns in the field/profession, such a game could be at least a large, great-demographics, much-$$$ niche game.

    Board reverses examiner, move ahead 5 spaces . . . inequitable conduct, lose one turn . . . prelim injunction granted, opponent on your left must pay you $100,000.

    Maybe something along the lines of Life; to better (than a more simplistic Monopoly-type game) represent IP’s greater sophistication.

  6. EG April 19, 2010 3:45 pm

    Steve M.

    The one I know of and have is called The Inventors (1974) by Parker Brothers. Pretty shallow “invention” premise but at least its one I know of. You can check it out on BoardGameGeek (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3378/the-inventors ).

  7. Gene Quinn April 19, 2010 4:29 pm

    Brian-

    I have not seen this Bilski film, but based on the text at the website it looks like it is a terrible distortion of the truth. Court didn’t distort patent law to allow for the patenting of software, and that claim on the website suggests that the movie is not really worth watching because of its bias and what will undoubtedly be factual and historical inaccuracies.

    What did you think of it?

    -Gene

  8. Gene Quinn April 19, 2010 4:31 pm

    EG-

    I am a BIG Risk fan! I know what you mean about Monopoly being a slow play and the fate certain. It is much more fun with house rules that speed it up a bit and when everyone realizes there will be a winner so declare the winner and start new.

    -Gene

  9. Steve M April 19, 2010 10:10 pm

    Thanks, EG.

    Took a look at it via your link; seems dated, of course, given the year … but at least it exists/ed.

    And I’m w/you regarding Risk; always been one of my favorites.

  10. EG April 20, 2010 9:41 am

    Steve M.,

    Yes, The Inventors is dated but not as much as the Game of Authors (1861): http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11670/the-game-of-authors

    I also found another “invention” premise game called “US Patent Number 1” (2001): http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2297/us-patent-number-1

    On Risk, you may be confusing me with Gene’s comment. I don’t find Risk to be a fun game either.

  11. EG April 20, 2010 9:51 am

    Steve M.

    Some more game trivia: One of the early “electronic” boardgames was Dark Tower (1981): http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/30/dark-tower Amazingly, we still have a “working” version (at least the last time we played it which was a few years ago) which is considered quite rare. I just saw one being offerred for the price of $335.99 (orginally, it cost around $40). There’s a huge market in second hand board games, especially those that are now out of print.

  12. Steve M April 20, 2010 3:46 pm

    EG; thanks for the additional games info; great stuff.

    And sorry about the “likes Risk” mix up.

  13. EG April 21, 2010 8:15 am

    Steve M.

    Not a problem. In fact, there’s a new version of Risk out that might make it tolerable for me (including taking only 90 minutes to play).

    What’s interesting is that when I started to doing prep and pros, a number of my early patent applications involved toys/games (my other area of early application drafting was agricultural equipment). I’m an undergraduate chemist but mechanical stuff doesn’t faze me in the least. Doing patent applications on toys/games (and even agricultural equipment) was fun to do.

    Those who are involved in board games normally do it as a hobby. There are few very well known game designers who do make it more than a hobby. Those include Alan Moon (designer of Ticket to Ride and many others), Klaus Teuber (designer of the highly successful Settlers of Catan series), and Reiner Knizia (designer of Tigris & Eurphrates among others). If you want to know the fascinating story on Settlers of Catan which basically set off the whole EuroGames craze, check out: http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/magazine/17-04/mf_settlers

    War games are even more a hobby area. Some of the notable designers include Vance von Borries (my brother Mark was a developer for his Bataan! game which I was a playtester for), Richard Berg (a legend in this field), Mark Herman (the High Master of card driven war games which I favor), and Ted Racier (he has several in the World War I era which I also favor). The map art for these games is something to behold.

    Patents tend not to be the way to protect board games. Instead, IP protection tends to be based on copyright, and sometimes trademark. Most of the game rules are freely shared by the designer/developer, and there’s even a huge amount of play by e-mail (PBEM) , including tournaments, using modules based on CyberBoard, VASSAL, and ACTS (I’m only familiar with CyberBoard and VASSAL).

    Lots of fun for spending your free time, at least in my opinion. I never could get into video games (call me “video game-challenged”).

  14. Steve M April 21, 2010 9:57 am

    Thanks for the additional games info; fascinating stuff to someone like myself who’s always liked board games.

    Did read that wired article when it came out. Impressive accomplishment indeed.

    And like you, just never been interested in video games.

  15. EG April 21, 2010 12:51 pm

    Steve M.

    Glad you enjoyed the additional information. My younger patent attorney brother Mark is the true “board game geek” in our family. I’m simply a participant in this hobby.

    Yeah, I never could get into video games. Computer games yes (including some like Railroad Tycoon that were later turned into board games), but video games no.

  16. Stephen April 25, 2010 3:30 pm

    Amazing article. For decades now I have been playing Monopoly. I still love it to this day. Nothing brings the family together like a good Monopoly session

  17. EG April 26, 2010 9:34 am

    Stephen,

    EuroGames like Settlers of Catan are a lot more “family-friendly” than Monopoly, and quite a bit shorter.