Carcassonne and intellectual property

Recall my post from a couple of weeks ago about board games in general, and about the game Carcassonne in particular.  As I mentioned at the end of the post, I have been working on a computer version of the game, with a couple of main objectives.  This weekend I finished an initial version that meets the first objective (more on this later).  My wife and I have really enjoyed playing it; here is a screenshot:

Carcassonne screenshot

Carcassonne screenshot.

I include a screenshot here as an explicit example of the subject of this post.  In the few cases when I manage to put together software that others might actually find useful or enjoyable, I try to make it as freely available as possible, usually on my download page here.  However, I am reasonably sure that I cannot do that here, at least not without infringing on the copyright of the artist responsible for the tile artwork (which, by the way, is Copyrighted (C) 2000 Hans im Gluck, and is also available online from the game publisher; see below).

This protection of the work of the original artist makes sense to me.  But as far as I can tell, this seems to be just about the only restriction preventing me from posting the software, which is a little surprising.  That is, the mechanics of the game itself are not copyrighted– indeed, they are not even copyrightable.  The important distinction here is between “ideas” themselves, and particular expression of those ideas.  In this case the “idea” is the concept of the game, the distribution and function of the tiles and pieces in the game, and the rules governing how the tiles and pieces are used and scored.  The “expressions” that are protected by copyright include the specific text printed in the rule book, and the artwork on the tiles.

A recent interesting example of this distinction was the Facebook app Lexulous, formerly Scrabulous, and originally differing in name only from the board game Scrabble.  Briefly, a couple of guys developed an online version of Scrabble called Scrabulous, and after Hasbro brought a copyright infringement suit, the guys changed the name to Lexulous and also changed the rules and tile distribution from the original game.  I recommend reviewing the details yourself, but my impression is that Hasbro almost certainly did not have a case, but it wasn’t worth the fight.

(I should emphasize that I am not a lawyer, I am not an expert in the law, and as such my opinions here are likely the least informed among everything in this blog.  I welcome any corrections of my inaccurate or misleading statements.)

So is it even legal for me to develop and play a computer version of this game, using the name Carcassonne and using the original tile images, even if I never give it to anyone else?  Even without adding any functionality beyond what the board game provides, this seems like a clear example of “fair use,” since (1) I have purchased and own the original board game; (2) Rio Grande Games, the game publisher here in the States, provides both the rules and even the tile artwork on its web site; and (3) restricting use of this computer version to my own home has no effect on the market value of the original game.

But I do mean to add functionality beyond what the original game provides, which brings us back to my two main objectives for this project.  The first was to provide more detailed score tracking.  For those not familiar with the game, you score points by completing features on tiles as they are played.  But at the end of the game, you also score points for incomplete features remaining on the board (e.g., farms).  This “projected score” information is useful well before the game ends, but it is also relatively difficult to compute, since it can fluctuate up and down as tile features are aggregated.  It is handy to let the computer track this projected score for you.

The result is a game that is even more fun to play.  I hook my laptop up to our 10-foot projection screen… and remember the Xbox wireless controller I bought a while back for my space flight simulator?  I configured the controller to use the joystick and buttons to drive mouse and keyboard input, so my wife and I can sit together with just the wireless controller, without the laptop or its monitor cabling, and play the game together.

Finally, my second main objective for this project was to develop a competent AI player for the game… but that’s for another post.

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5 Responses to Carcassonne and intellectual property

  1. Jessee says:

    Nice job on the game, I wish I could play it.
    If copyright protects the “expression” of the game through the printed rules and artwork, then would a patent protect the “idea” or mechanics of the game?

    • I think that’s the general idea; although, given the criteria that the game should be (1) new (i.e., apply for the patent within a year of its public availability), (2) useful, and (3) not obvious to be patentable, I would think that only (3) ever actually applies to a board game, unless the designer/publisher thought ahead, and unless the game is perhaps viewed as educational. In other words, is a game really “useful”?

      • Jessee says:

        I think any game is “useful” for enjoyment. There are plenty of toys out there that are patented, but serve no utilitarian purpose – I’m thinking slinky.

  2. Pingback: Carcassonne update | Possibly Wrong

  3. Bryan says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about an algorithm to compute the maximum score possible for a given game variant considering the number of players. For instance, I would love to be able to give the computer algorithm an input of 4 players on a basic game plus Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders, and it respond back with a maximum score by a player in this game (e.g. say, 350 points). Since you seemed to have specifically done some work in this area, I was wondering if you could help me.

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