Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Monopoly, Patents, & Business Methods

Today's Wall Street Journal article, "How a Fight Over a Board Game Monopolized an Economist's Life" presents the ins and outs of Ralph Anspach's trademark battle with Hasbro, the makers of Monopoly. Professor Anspach and Hasbro have different perspectives on the history of the game and the patents that cover it. We wonder if what is really disclosed is a business method.

Hasbro cites a patent issued to Charles B. Darrow, a heater salesman as the origin of the game. That patent, 2,026,082, was sold to Parker Brothers in 1935. Parker Brother's registered the Monopoly trademark in the same year and went on to sell over 750 million copies.

Professor Anspach cites an earlier 1924 patent, 1,509,312, invented by Elizabeth Magie Phillips as the real origin of the game.

Aside from always executing a strategy to buy the utilities and railroads, having to have the Top Hat or the Dog as my game piece never having the stamina to finish a game, I found the claims interesting. I think Ms. Phillips is the inventor of the corner space and that Professor Anspach may be on to something here from a prior art perspective if in fact Mr. Darrow saw a version of the Phillips invention. But there are no records to determine if the two inventors ever went to the same trade show or crossed each other's paths.

The Landlord Game disclosed in Ms. Phillips patent has the following claim:

A game-board provided with corner spaces, intervening spaces of different denominations and values, some of the spaces of the different series corresponding and distinguished by coloring or other markings, so that the corresponding divisions may be recognized, a series of cards of changeable value, two or more of which are alike and which relate to two or more certain spaces on the board, a series of movable pieces to be used in conjunction with the spaces of the board and controlled by dice, so as to determine play.

The Monopoly patent introduces the concept that the spaces are arranged together in groups by color, that they have value, and that if you own the whole block you can extract more money:

In a board game apparatus a board acting as a playing-field having marked spaces constituting a path or course extending about the board, said path affording a continuous track for the purpose of continuity of play, certain of said spaces being designated, as by position, or color so as to constitute a distinguishable group, there being a plurality of such groups each differing from the others and each having its spaces adjacent on the same side of the board, the apparatus having indications of the rentals required for the use and occupancy, by opponent players, of space of one or more such groups, which rentals are subject to increase by the acquisition of an additional space or spaces of the same group by the same individual player, thereby making it possible for the possessor to extract greater payments or penalties from any opponents resting or trespassing thereon.

Mr. Darrow may have disclosed a business method. But does anyone have the McDonald's Broadway piece?

Where are the patent numbers rant: The WSJ used one of the drawings from the Darrow patent in the article but once again didn't provide the patent numbers.

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