Saturday, April 28, 2012

Patent a peel

The usual intellectual property protections available for games are copyrights and trademarks. It's the rare game that breaks such new ground that it can win a patent.

So I was surprised to see a patent number on my Banagrams game.

The game pieces are just 144 letter tiles. Nothing new there.

There aren't many rules to the game either -- just five in number, adding up to around 350 words of text. While clever and fun, also not really anything profoundly new.

So I looked up the patent number and wouldn't you know, the patent is for the banana-shaped pouch the game comes in!

This actually makes a lot of sense, when I think about it, because as clever as the game is, and it is fun, I think the main reason why it took off was the clever marketing. Like a lot of the other popular "fad" game over the last few decades, the game combines a very simple mechanic with a very high-quality presentation and clever marketing gimmick to stand out from the crowd, This isn't to imply the game isn't fun, it is, and marketing alone won't turn a turd into a  triumph. But there isn't really a deep game there and I don't think Bananagrams will end up with the kind of devoted following that Scrabble has.

Here's what the pouch looks like in the patent application:

US Patent No. D551,451S


  1. Unfortunately, it's not that rare or difficult to patent game mechanics. In fact, many patents are granted for obvious ideas. Not for a while, but on Purple Pawn we've reviewed game patents before. Here is a link to the last:

    As for Bananagrams, I don't think there's any question that while a decent game, it's the packaging that's made it such a huge hit. (They've sold 5 million so far.)

  2. One could have a field day with questionable patents, including the infamous patent issued for playing with a cat and a laser pointer....And David thanks for that link -- a fascinating review.

    Note however that the Bananagrams patent is specificially a DESIGN patent (shown by the "D" in the number. This is different than what we commonly think of as a patent, such as the invention for a better mousetrap (known in the lingo as a "utility" patent). A design patent is only specifically saying that the design of the product is a unique shape -- nothing about the game etc.

    Most well-known consumer goods companies use design patents (e.g., the famous Coke bottle shape), but they are used for some surprising areas as well (such as car headlights).

    And, as the posting and the the comment suggest, it is this design that has made it a big hit. So good for them for trying to protect it. (But, look at the purple pawn listing for some real abuses, like the dice game patent which is not a design patent....)


  3. So this means that the rules are not patented? Why not if the game is such a hit?

    1. It's very difficult to patent rules. You have to show that it's novel. I don't think there's anything novel about Bananagrams from a game play perspective. Rules are generally copyrighted instead, which protects the expression of the ideas and lasts longer.

    2. The essential game rules have been around for a while. My mom used to play "Speed Scrabble" back in the 1980's, or possibly even the 70's. I picked up the game in 2005 where the people that introduced me to it called it "Pick". I think that this shows that the game itself is public domain. Furthermore, I read a patent article that specifically mentioned that game mechanics cannot be patented. This was an old rule to deal with the many versions of chess that were flooding he patent office.