Tuesday afternoon, search for “Wordle” on the iOS App Store set up a small handful of apps aping the name and gameplay of the simple word game which has gone viral in recent weeks. But none of those iOS apps were created by Josh Wardle, the Brooklyn-based software engineer who created the free online game last October.
Now all of those copy apps are gone, the apparent result of a late purge by App Store critics following some attention on social networks. But that probably doesn’t mean the end of Wordle clone. These swift deletions describe the complex legal and social landscape surrounding copy apps and the protections developers can claim for their game ideas.
Who owns “Wordle”?
For starters, it’s important to note that the basic five-letter guessing game underlying Wordle is not in itself a completely original idea. The same basic gameplay was popularized by Jargon, a game show that dates back to the 80s in the United States and other countries. The two-player pen-and-paper game Jotto, which dates back to 1955, would also be very familiar to Wordle players. Before that, a more traditional version of the game called Bulls and cows has been played since the 19th century, according to at least one source.
For convenience, neither of these antecedents poses a legal problem for Wordle himself. “Whenever you have a copyright, you are protecting the expression, not the idea,” Dallas attorney Mark Methenitis told Ars. “It’s a line that a lot of people have a lot of trouble with, especially when you go into games.”
In other words, it is extremely difficult to protect the copyright of an abstract game mechanic like “guess five letter words and give advice based on correct letters”. A game developer can file a patent on an original game idea, a legal process that has been used to strangle video game clones in the past. But getting a patent is a long and arduous process that can fail if there is “prior art” to the idea (or if the mechanic can be considered legally “obvious”).
A free brand for everyone
Separated from copyright or patent, a trademark could at least legally protect the name Wordle to be exploited by imitators. But unlike copyright, which automatically applies when a work is published, trademarks offer very limited protection until they are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
A quick search on the USPTO website shows two earlier trademarks for software called “Wordle”, one from 2010 and one from 2013. Both were discontinued shortly after their initial filing, but Wardle apparently did not register his own trademark on his suddenly popular name.
This left the “Wordle” brand legally up for grabs, a situation that a company called Monkey Labs Inc. took advantage of. On January 7, this company filed its own trademark application for “Wordle”, claiming ownership of the name “downloadable computer application software for social media, namely to publish, show or display information in the field of electronic games via the Internet, namely software for playing word games. “
There could be reasons for canceling this mark for false commercial declarations under the Lanham Act of 1947, but such a legal argument could be an uphill battle. This is especially true because other games and apps used the name before Wardle was created. There are currently three games on the iOS App Store—Word!, Wordle – Word Puzzle, and Words– which predate the Wardle version by several years. While none of them have any mechanical similarity to the current viral hit, they claim the historical use of the name “Wordle” as much as anyone.
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