How do I protect a card game invention?
September 4, 2009 3:51 PM   Subscribe

I have invented a card game and would like to protect it before I start large-scale game testing. I can't find useful information about the laws surrounding protecting this kind of intellectual property. First, what kind of protections should I be seeking for a card game? Second, any recommendations on reputable, ethical lawyers in Seattle who can help me protect my game?
posted by velvetsmog to Law & Government (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think what you need is to get a lawyer (yes, you need to find one and pay him) to draw up a non-disclosure agreement. Then you ask all your play-testers to sign their own copies of it.

I don't think there's anything else you can do.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:22 PM on September 4, 2009

Alas, I can't help with your first question, but this is a good resource for your second.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:26 PM on September 4, 2009

You can also go the Nolo Press route. They have reasonably good self-help guides.

Note that Richard Garfield actually successfully patented the key play components of his game.

There's something called a provisional patent that will give you a year of protection before you have to file a full-out proper patent application of your work.

IAMNAPL of course.

Copyright protection doesn't really help since it is easy to reproduce the elements of a game without infringing the copyright.
posted by Palamedes at 4:29 PM on September 4, 2009

Best answer: I am not going to speak about what the law says, but about de-facto practicalities that make your intellectual property protections not worth the trouble. As soon as you put it on paper, you are as protected as you are going to get from a practical standpoint. By law, you can protect it further. I am telling you not to waste your time.

First of all, big companies don't want to make your game without giving you credit or profit. Don't misunderstand, they would be happy to cut you out. I mean they don't want your game at all. There is not a large enough or reliable enough market for new card games to raise their interest. They rely on the boring old standbys.

Then there are the other game designers like yourself. Generally speaking, they don't want to claim the idea of your game as their own, for two reasons.

(1) If they rip it off complete with artwork and every piece of phrasing on the cards, they know at the least that you'd raise a public stink. In a small (read: close-knit) market like independent board and card games, word of plagiarism gets around at the trade shows, conventions, and hobby shops, and can make a difference in sales.

(2) They can just rearrange a few trappings of a game and that rearranged version is now theirs. That includes your game after you've wrapped it up in legal protections as tight as a drum. Hardly any consumers would care if you raise a stink about similarity, because they know all games mix and match components from others. You may as well try to patent the idea of cards. Everyone hates a patent troll. Guess who would lose in the eyes of your prospective customers? The evil patent troll. They'd play whichever has art or rule tweaks that they like better, or whichever is marketed better.

In both of these cases, you would spend massive resources fighting them with lawyers. It's tough to defend a game "concept". It's easier to defend specific texts and pictures. The best case scenario for a small-time game inventor turned litigator is bleak. You get everything they have, which is probably nothing, so they get away scott free. That will happen again and again, whiich will feel like playing whack-a-mole and drain you of all profit.

Your invention is not what will bring you fame and fortune in card game design. It is only a prerequisite. Outside Hasbro, Mattel and MiltonBradley, in the industry of board and card games, the only delineator between the successes and failures is hard work at marketing. Show up at game conventions all year round to demo it. Show up at major trade shows all year round. Get them to like you, not fear your lawyers. Good luck.
posted by Matt Arnold at 6:53 PM on September 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Adding to Matt Arnold's points, everyone in a position to make a card game has a much longer list of good ideas than they can ever actually get through, they're already swimming in their own cool concepts. There is little to no interest in stealing ideas when you have your own ones that you're dying to get a chance to implement.

NDAs are quick and easy (alter a template from the web), but if someone breaks it anyway, what then? Among a lot of companies, NDAs are used as little more than a formality if used at all. They cost nothing, and with multi-million dollar projects, are basic due dilligence, but that's all that can be said. It is professionalism and the points above that is really what protects secrets.

NDAs and other IP protections are useful if you end up in court, but if you end up in court over a game, you've already lost.

You could consider disguising the key aspects during development - for example if a big part of the appeal is how the mechanics tie in with the theme, then make a version stripped of the theme and playtest the game that way, keeping the crowning jewel secret. Or perhaps you could gussy up the components in ways that seem important but aren't, so that it seems like manufacturing costs make it a fundamentally unprofitable design. Or make a version with a red-herring theme that is really boring or a turn off to the target audience.

But don't put too much expense and effort into secrecy. That's not the part of the process you have to fear. Keeping your work out of other people's hands isn't the hard part. Getting your work into other peoples hands is the hard part (sales, marketing, buzz, etc)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:25 PM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

(1) If they rip it off complete with artwork and every piece of phrasing on the cards, they know at the least that you'd raise a public stink.

If they did that, they've run afoul of copyright, and thanks to corruption and lobbying in the USA, these days it is trivial to smash someone into pulp for copyright infringement. If someone is dumb enough to take your stuff wholesale, you probably wouldn't even need to go to court to shut them down hard.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:29 PM on September 4, 2009

You may want to read what the Copyright Office has to say about games. [currently down for maintenance but easy to find the Google cache]
posted by deeaytch at 9:08 PM on September 4, 2009

nthing that no one wants to seal your game and if they did, they'd change it just enough that there wouldn't be anything you could do about it.

Despite the incredible and highly exceptional fact that Garfield and WotC were able to patent(!!) "tapping" mana in MTG, everyone else now just "exhausts" or "consumes" or whatever other word they want to use for enacting the exact same mechanic in their games and WotC can't do a damn thing about it.

You can copyright the actual specific wording of rules, but not the mechanics described.

There is pretty much nothing that will really protect your game idea and to even get a very slight bit more than just doing nothing will get you, it will cost you ton of money (and probably good will in the industry).

Also, not to sound like a dick, but I'd also really suggest heading over to and really looking through the games already in existence. I've spoken with way too many amateur designers who thought they just invented the wheel but it turns out their idea has been done a million different ways already in the obscure corners of the hobby market.

BGG's designer forum is a great resource for any and all questions too, I highly suggest heading over there for that no matter what your goals as a designer are.

Good luck, I hope your game is awesome and I get to play it someday.
posted by teishu at 9:49 PM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't patent lawyers get paid about twice as much as other lawyers? I'm sure you can spend that money on better artwork or marketing.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2009

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