Board Game Patents

A board game patent is a legal protection for a board game used to help prevent others from profiting illicitly from your work. By patenting your game, you make it illegal for others to simply resell your idea under their own label without seeking your permission. Along with copyright and trademark, the patent is one of the major protections for original work used by creators.

Of the three major protective instruments, the patent is arguably the most difficult to grasp. A patent covers an “invention,” a broad category covering both physical objects and more abstract methods. Patents definitely cover processes, and since board games are at an innermost level processes for entertainment, they are eminently patentable, so long as they meet the general requirements for patentability.

What Do You Need

The general requirements for patentability in a board game are threefold:

  • The board game must be novel.
  • The board game must be useful.
  • The board game must be non-obvious.

Breaking down these specific requirements gets a little more complicated.

To start with, the novelty requirement ensures the game is not just a mindless copy of something else already released or a boldfaced attempt to add legal protection to a common folk game. You can prevent unintentional similarity to other works through a patent search, best carried out by those experienced in the field.

The usefulness of a board game is defined by what it intends to accomplish. Most board games intend to entertain their players, though some also have educational aspirations. Since these aspects are usually apparent in the game's design, this test is perhaps the easiest for a board game to meet.

The obviousness test requires a game to not simply serve as a slight variant on something already on the market. Adding on a slight mechanical or thematic twist to an existing property isn't a very useful change, and patent protections intended to encourage inventiveness, will not apply in those cases.

Design Patents

One arguable exception to the obviousness requirement is the design patent. This is a patent on the ornamental pieces of the game. For instance, reskinning an existing game such as Risk to include pieces based on media properties can result in a design patent, though the patent holders of the original Risk game might object to the mechanics. This allows for protection of art assets separately from other game components.

Copyrights and Board Games

In stark contrast to the usefulness of patents in protecting a game, copyrights provide almost no protection for a board game. While you can set forward designed elements of the game as trademarked brand identity, a copyright cannot apply to a system. This is a difficulty for board games; where most works of art can claim copyright protection from the moment of offer to the public, board games need to work through the patent process to fend off plagiarists. The only arguably copyrightable portion of a board game would be the rules text or artwork on the board, not the mechanical core that drives the system.

The Application

When preparing a patent application, you'll need to include several elements. First, you'll need an abstract to sum up what the game is. In this section, you'll want to give a brief description of the game itself, both in rules terms and physical terms. You can talk a bit about the purpose of the game, but don't get bogged down in making a pitch for its originality or utility here; the abstract needs to provide a short summary, not a protracted argument.

The next section is the description, where you present a more detailed look at the game. You will probably want to include illustrations of what the game will look like here so that the office has a better idea of what you are making. Beyond that, a complete set of rules for the game and description of the world it takes place in should go in there as well. Perhaps you can even include a set of gameplay variants to make the game more versatile. Basically, the patent office needs you to provide all the relevant information and being more transparent will always be better than missing something. An attorney can help you figure out exactly what you need here.

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