There's a board game that I really like called Mystery Mansion.

I want to make a similar digital version of the game for various mobile platforms, but I don't want to get sued by Milton Bradley (Now Hasbro) for infringing on their idea.

My game of course would not steal any of their artwork and my gameplay is slightly different, but the core of the game uses the same mechanics of a modular game board.

Is changing the artwork enough to avoid infringement?

I heard through the grape vine that game mechanics can't be patentable but the layout of the game can (Scrabble for example patented the layout of their game board, but not the Crossword Puzzle gameplay, or so I've heard). Is this a true statement?

  • Isn't this a copyright/trademark issue? – Alex Chamberlain Sep 20 '12 at 17:05
  • Unlike copyright, which automatically provides protection as soon as the work is created, a patent has to be requested and granted. Has the maker of the game attempted to patent some of its aspects? – Gilles Sep 20 '12 at 17:07
  • @AlexChamberlain The name is trade marked, and the images are copyrighted. But I don't know if the game mechanics (how you play the game) are or if they can be. That's what my question is. – OghmaOsiris Sep 20 '12 at 17:13
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    Check to see if Hasbro has a patent on it. If they do, then you might be able to work out a deal, to use their patent. No need to get sued, if you have permission :) – VenomFangs Sep 20 '12 at 17:27
  • @VenomFangs I searched the games name, the mechanic and Hasbro (And Milton Bradley) and I can't seem to find it. Is there anything else I can do to make sure it's not patented? – OghmaOsiris Sep 20 '12 at 19:26
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Board game mechanics (the process for playing the game) are patentable. A Google Patent search for "board game" turns up lots of results. So no, just changing the artwork is not enough to avoid infringement if the game mechanics are patented. (See the article Patenting Board Games 101 for more information.)

In the legal battle surrounding Scrabble, the game mechanics did play a part. Hasbro dropped their lawsuit against the makers of Scrabulous after they agreed to change the name and the rules of the game, by increasing the number of letter tiles that each player receives from 7 to 8.

An additional note regarding copyrights of board games:

Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game.

Reference: Can I copyright my game? Are game rules protected by copyright?

  • Game mechanics may now be copyrightable. See Spry Fox v. Lolapps – DukeZhou Aug 19 '16 at 2:34
  • Note that “Spry Fox” is a district court ruling, and could be overturned at any time by a circuit court. However, as the penalties for copyright infringement are quite strong and extend to digital marketplaces, it is conceivably a credible prophylactic against cloning, assuming your game method is distinct. Tetris v. Xio also seems to extend copyright into areas typically reserved design patents. You can google either case to find all kinds of helpful review articles. – DukeZhou Aug 19 '16 at 2:43
  • IMPORTANT: This answer was posted prior to Alice vs. CLS and subsequent rulings. After 2014, the patent eligibility of game mechanics is very much in doubt. (This goes against over a century of precedent in the US, and seems to be an unintended consequence of patent abuse in industry leading to Alice.) – DukeZhou Aug 30 at 21:15

Up until Bilski methods for playing a game, both board games and card games were getting through. Post Bilski the art unit that handles that area is taking the position that they will reject all methods of playing as abstract. This is from personal experience. Also including a pointer to a case I am not involved in where the board found a method for playing a card name to be abstract, un-patentable subject matter. Another case found the requirement for a random number generator tied a board game to a "machine" so it was ok.

http://e-foia.uspto.gov/Foia/ReterivePdf?system=BPAI&flNm=fd2010008274-02-07-2012-1

  • Recent IPWatchdog article on software patents supports the inclination to approve methods that rely on computers. "Software can be protected in the U.S. if it is unique and tied to a machine ... it is there to make sure that whatever protection you do ultimately obtain will not extend to so-called 'pure business methods' ... you cannot patent a process done in your head, but if that process leverages ... a computer, now you have something that is patent eligible..." ipwatchdog.com/software-patents – DukeZhou Oct 19 '17 at 16:34
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    While the author of that article (from 2016) and I both wish something like this was clearly patent eligible, that article is not quoting any recent cases that have bucked the trend of anything "soft" being declared abstract. A system for paying for a city bus was recently ruled abstract because it was fundamentally a program running on a "standard computer". The court was looking for something that improved the computer, as a computer, itself. patentlyo.com/patent/2017/10/abstract-turnstile-spinning.html – George White Oct 20 '17 at 22:09
  • Thanks for bringing up the "improvement of a computer" aspect. (I've been apprised of this by more than one patent attorney, so it is particularly salient.) I have to wonder if games, which traditionally have had patent protection in the US, may be distinct. Possibly not, but it would make novel games unique among all forms of creative expression in not being afforded intellectual property protection. – DukeZhou Oct 23 '17 at 21:53
  • It seems that some games can be reasonably protected by copyright. Board games and specialized card games could be patented up until a few years ago when they got hit by bullets meant for software. – George White Oct 25 '17 at 1:11
  • There has been one promising recent development extending copyright into protection of mechanics, Spry Fox vs. Lolapps, but it's important to make a distinction about what actually constitutes a game. Games are sets of mechanics. Any IP traditionally covered by copyright do not constitute games, but merely aesthetic elements applied to mechanics. Without protection of novel game mechanics, games have no IP protection. – DukeZhou Oct 25 '17 at 15:44

This article is worth looking at.

"The PTAB found that (i) the claimed method is directed to a set of rules for conducting a wagering game, which is a patent-ineligible abstract idea, and (ii) the manipulations of the deck of cards (e.g., shuffling, dealing) are conventional steps in playing a wagering game that do not add enough to the claims to transform the recited methods into patent-eligible subject matter."

Essentially, they were trying to patent a new method betting on Blackjack, which was deemed a "business method" and purely abstract. (i.e. It's simply a set of mental steps for managing risk.)

Ostensibly, truly novel game methods should still be patentable, regardless of whether they involve computers, although patent attorneys recommend using one of the claims to tie the game to computer systems for software-based implementations.

Another element to bear in mind is that patents are not a monolith. Typically you will have a few independent claims and a bunch of dependent claims (which are extensions of the independent claims.) Each claim is treated separately, so having any particular claim denied does not necessarily invalidate the entire patent. The review process generally takes a few years and involves some back-and-forth with the patent office.

Rules vary internationally. US patents can usually be defended in patent treaty regions, although if a game catches on, foreign filing may be worthwhile.


This answer is updated based on a this recent article from IP Watchdog.

The article mentions In re Smith, where a new method of betting on Blackjack was rejected and raised alarm. However, although such a method technically constitutes a "new game", all of the steps listed in the application were generic (such as shuffling cards.) In other words, the only novel aspect of the Smith patent application was the order of the steps that constitute the "new game". It's unclear that the result would have been the same had the claims included a step that was actually novel and inventive.

Deciding to pursue a patent can be risk. There is no guarantee of securing a grant and it can be expensive. A recent game that may be helpful to consider is Threes!, aka 2048. Would it have been possible to patent that game mechanic? Maybe. The more relevant question might be would it have been worthwhile to pursue a patent? (Based on the number of times the clones have been downloaded, I'd lean towards yes, but in this context, it is really an assessment of risk vs. reward.)


Copyright and Game Mechanics:

On a more positive note, this recent case, Spry Fox vs. Lolapps seems to extend protection of game mechanics into Copyright law. It could be overturned at any time by a higher court, but word on the street is it is a kind of "third rail" and no one wants to go near it. Further, there is some precedent for this extension of Copyright law in Tetris vs. Xio, which is bordering on Design Patent territory.

Copyright is a great, no-cost way to pursue some degree protection of your game.


Creative work of all types have very strong Intellectual Property protection, even something as simple as a photo snapped on a phone. Games are distinct in being algorithms, but still constitute creative work. Current climate aside regarding game patent eligibility, the spirit of the law" clearly indicates that rule sets for games should be granted the same intellectual property protection rights as other forms of art.

  • Thx a lot for your answer, its very helpfull. – Andre Andriole Oct 19 '17 at 3:41
  • In a patente "claims" area some have numbers and some doest so the numbers represents separate claims and the text that comes under the main text of the number represents the dependent ones ? – Andre Andriole Oct 19 '17 at 3:42

Nope. Can't patent game mechanics. Or, you can, but you'd be wasting your money.

https://www.wiltgren.com/game-design/ip-law-dummies-game-designers/

  • "Nope ... or you can": Well it's definitely one of those two options. But this answer doesn't really provide any reasoning either way, and so doesn't add anything to existing answers. The linked article doesn't really address the underlying patentability issues either. – Maca Apr 3 at 20:06
  • At the very least, you should explain the gist of the link and not leave up to the reader to have to read the whole thing. Links go bad. This link in particular isn't authoritative. – Eric Shain Apr 13 at 19:56

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