On Tuesday afternoon, searching for “Wordle” on the iOS App Store turned up a small handful of apps aping the name and gameplay of the simple word game that has gone viral in recent weeks. But none of those iOS apps were made by Josh Wardle, the Brooklyn-based software engineer who created the free web-based game last October.
All of those copycat apps are now gone, the apparent result of a belated purge by App Store reviewers following some social media attention. But this likely doesn’t mean the end of Wordle clones. Those quick removals paper over the complicated legal and social landscape surrounding copycat apps and the protections developers can claim on their game ideas.
Who Owns ‘Wordle’?
To start, it’s important to note that the basic five-letter guessing game underlying Wordle is not itself a completely original idea. The same basic gameplay was popularized by Lingo, a game show that dates back to the ’80s in the US and other countries. The two-player pen-and-paper game Jotto, which goes 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.
Conveniently, none of this history presents a legal problem for Wordle itself. “Whenever you have a copyright, you’re protecting the expression, not the idea,” Dallas attorney Mark Methenitis told Ars. “It’s a line a lot of people have a very hard time with, especially when you get into games.”
In other words, it’s exceedingly hard to copyright an abstract game mechanic like “guessing five-letter words and giving hints based on correct letters.” A game developer can file for a patent on an original gaming 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 fall apart if there’s “prior art” predating the idea (or if the mechanic could be considered legally “obvious”).
A Trademark Free-For-All
Separate from copyright or patent, a trademark could at least legally protect the name Wordle from being exploited by copycats. But unlike copyright, which applies automatically when a work is published, trademarks offer very limited protection until and unless they are registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
A quick search on the USPTO website shows two prior marks for software called “Wordle,” one from 2010 and one from 2013. Both of these were abandoned shortly after their original filing, but Wardle apparently hasn’t filed for his own trademark on his suddenly popular name.
That has left the “Wordle” trademark legally up for grabs, a situation that a company called Monkey Labs Inc. has taken advantage of. On January 7, that outfit filed its own trademark application for “Wordle,” claiming ownership of the name for “downloadable computer application software for social networking, namely, for posting, showing, or displaying information in the field of electronic gaming via the Internet, namely, software for playing word puzzle games.”
There could be grounds to get that trademark canceled for commercial misrepresentation under the 1947 Lanham Act, but any such legal argument could be an uphill battle. That’s especially true because other games and apps used the name prior to Wardle’s creation. There are currently three games on the iOS App Store—Wordle!, Wordle – Word Puzzle, and Wordles—that predate the Wardle version by years. While none of these has any mechanical similarities to the current viral hit, they have as much of a claim to the historical use of the “Wordle” name as anyone.
Attack of the Clones
Trademark aside, the copyright laws that protect Wordle itself help protect anyone who wants to make their own version of the same basic idea. That means there’s not much the law can do to stop other five-letter guessing games from existing. Ars Technica readers may remember the similar iOS clone explosion that faced the likes of Vlambeer’s Radical Fishing and Super Crate Boy, as well as Jenova Chen’s fl0w, Spry Fox’s Triple Town, and countless others.
But while the idea of Wordle isn’t very legally protectable, the game’s specific expression of that idea is. So a clone that copied the user interface, layout, and other design elements of Wardle’s version might still fall afoul of the law. Back in 2012, The Tetris Company used this argument to shut down a particularly blatant Tetris clone on the App Store.