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Wordle and IP law: What happens when a hot game gets cloned


Enlarge / And you thought the tweets were annoying…
Aurich Lawson


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.

Today, all of those copycat apps are 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”?

Wordle by decades.”>A play sheet from Jotto, a pen-and-paper game that predates <em>Wordle</em> by decades.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/jotto-300×164.jpg” width=”300″ height=”164″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/jotto.jpg 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / A play sheet from Jotto, a pen-and-paper game that predates Wordle by decades.

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 provides 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”).

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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.

Wordle! is one of a handful with similar names that have been on iOS for years.”>An unrelated game called <em>Wordle!</em> is one of a handful with similar names that have been on iOS for years.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wordleios-300×533.png” width=”300″ height=”533″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wordleios.png 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / An unrelated game called Wordle! is one of a handful with similar names that have been on iOS for years.

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 (at least according to the “4+ years old” indication on the store interface). While none of these have 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 same 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.

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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.

A similar copyright claim may have applied to “Wordle – The App,” an iOS clone that directly mimicked the look and feel of Wardle’s Wordle. That’s true even though the iOS version added features like different word length options and multiple daily plays. The clone’s creator, Zach Shakked, was particularly brash in crowing on Twitter about the sudden success of his iOS version, which garnered hundreds of trial subscriptions for the game’s $30/month “unlimited play” option.

Wordle clones that bore striking visual similarities to the viral hit.”>A selection of since-purged <em>Wordle</em> clones that bore striking visual similarities to the viral hit.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wordleclone-300×650.jpg” width=”300″ height=”650″ srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/wordleclone-640×1386.jpg 2x”></a><figcaption class=
Enlarge / A selection of since-purged Wordle clones that bore striking visual similarities to the viral hit.

Shakked’s clone gained infamy after being highlighted by Andy Baio last night, leading Shakked to protect his tweet briefly. Overnight, though, after the game was removed from the App Store, Shakked posted a thread saying that he “realize[d] I crossed a line. And I surely, surely will never do anything remotely close to this again. I fucked up.”

At the same time, though, Shakked defiantly wrote that “Wordle is a ripoff of another game” and “Wordle the word isn’t trademarked, and there’s a bunch of other unrelated word apps named the same thing.” Shakked also claimed he was “already working on an update with a different UI” that could have helped skirt any copyright claims.

Lots of bites at the Apple

Beyond any legal realities, there are definite ethical, reputational, and even societal issues with shamelessly cloning a popular game idea. Apple tries to offer some protection against these problems, using its App Store guidelines to stop the spread of game clones on the iOS App Store (with mixed success in practice). Section 4.1 of those guidelines specifically calls out “copycats,” telling developers directly to “come up with your own ideas. We know you have them, so make yours come to life. Don’t simply copy the latest popular app on the App Store or make some minor changes to another app’s name or UI and pass it off as your own.”

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That “on the App Store” clause provides an interesting wrinkle in Wordle‘s case, though, because the game was created as a web app without an official, native App Store version within Apple’s walled garden. As TechCrunch points out, this seemingly left a loophole for App Store developers to exploit:

Wordle is facing a threat we haven’t seen play out yet: the game’s developer is essentially being punished by app stores for choosing to build using open web technologies, rather than a native app. Not only is this type of behavior allowed by the Apple App Store, there’s little recourse—because as far as Apple is concerned, Wordle doesn’t exist, given it wasn’t built [as] a native app.

There’s no way for a developer of a fully functional, capable web app like Wordle to claim their name in the App Store, nor is there a way for them to list their website to get users to the right place and defend themselves from copycats.

In Wordle‘s case, that loophole seems to have been closed. Apple confirmed it has removed the copycat apps from the store, but it refused further comment. Even after the purge, though, an iOS game called PuzzWord—which predates Wordle by years but has extremely similar gameplay and design—is still available as of this writing.

Which brings us back to the original problem. Despite Wordle‘s recent success, the basic idea behind the game is much older—and also very hard to protect under US law. As long as that’s the case, Wordle clones are probably inevitable, for better or worse.

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