IP protection · Mobile development

Does my mobile app infringe on the paper Monopoly boardgame?

Travis Somerville Bridge between people and technology

March 15th, 2017

I am creating a mobile app that helps people get better at a paper card game.


Specifically, tons of people play a game called "Magic the gathering" by Hasbro. The game is math intensive, and my game is an analysis tool to improve people's learning / decisions to go play the paper game.


But let's use a more tangible example for the sake of discussion: Monopoly


Imagine a mobile app that predicts if you should buy a Monopoly property. You would enter your current bankroll, your position on the board, what properties other people owned, and tell you the odds of successfully making it around to "GO" without going bankrupt.


Questions:

1) Can I reference the actual property names "Baltic Place" "Boardwalk"?

2) Can I draw my own icon of a shoe / wheelbarrow / etc? If there was already an official app icon of a show, how different must mine be?

3) Can I show any artwork from the game if it is cropped?

4) Am I allowed to reproduce game mechanics to analyze the game percentages of making a move?


Where is the line? I'm not trying to reproduce the game experience as monopoly stands, but I need parts of the game so users can learn / make great decisions when they do play...


This is a real project I have launched and feel the need to reach out to the group.


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Richard Giraud President of RGENT Computing Corporation

Last updated on March 16th, 2017

I'm not a lawyer but I've studied copyright laws in Canada and the US a bit, along with following a few cases. Am I an expert? No. However, I don't think you need an expert to tell you that a license is crucial in this case.

You really need to dig into intellectual property laws. All 3 kinds are at play here: trademark, copyright, and patent.

  1. Card names and such are iffy. Are they trademarked? If so, Hasbro MUST defend them or lose them. If they are copyrighted, then you can use them under fair use. What constitutes fair use? Whatever you can defend in court. That's right; you'll only find out if Hasbro sues you for copyright infringement, and the burden of proof is on you (i.e., you are guilty until proven innocent).
  2. That's a good question. The courts will determine if it's different enough to not be a derivative artwork. If you are talking about the trees, mountains, etc. logos used for the 5 colors, I'm almost certain they are trademarked.
  3. This goes back to fair use.
  4. You technically are, as long as Hasbro does not hold a patent for the rules. However, the courts may entertain copyright infringement.

Another point: Hasbro can sue, even if they don't have good grounds, and win simply through attrition. Remember that fair use is an affirmative defense, which means that the onus is on you to prove that it's fair use; essentially, you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent.

Finally, you'll likely see a hit to sales if you use knock-off graphics.

Ken Parker Partner at Parker Keough LLP

March 17th, 2017

Travis, I am an IP lawyer and I cannot offer you specific legal advice (ethical rules prohibit me from advising a non-client), but I can tell you that generally unofficial strategy guides can be structured so as not to infringe copyrights or trademarks. I am familiar with Magic the Gathering and can imagine an app that helps players to make strategic choices without infringing the game's IP. Some considerations would be making a prominent disclaimer that the app is unofficial/unauthorized and that you are not affiliated with Hasboro (in other words, if you use Hasboro's "Magic the Gathering" trademark to identify what the app does, you will need to be careful not to infringe that trademark by not implying a non-existent relationship or authorization). You have also correctly identified another copyright-related issue: making sure you do not use copyrighted images. Magic cards have original artwork that benefits from copyright protection. You may need to think about creative ways to identify cards that do not infringe Hasboro's copyrights. If you'd like to discuss, you can reach me at (617) 275-3040 or kparker@parkerkeough.com.