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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Monopolists

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board GameThe Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked playing Monopoly growing up. I loved being able to buy up properties, collect the rent, and crush everyone. Mwah hah hah. Of course, I also lost my share of games. Those were not fun.

Monopoly will be celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Millions of people like me love playing the game. A lot of people think they know the origin of the game. It was in every box of Monopoly. According to Parker Brothers, Charles Darrow was unemployed in 1935. He remembered his family trips to Atlantic City. One day, he sat down at his kitchen table and sketched out a board game, using street names from Atlantic City as references. He refined the game with the help of his family, and eventually sold it to Parker Brothers. He collected royalties for his family, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Not quite.

In this book, the author tracks down the true origins of Monopoly. It turns out that Monopoly was based on a game called The Landlord's Game, which was patented in 1902 by Lizzie Magie. She wanted to show the evils of capitalism, and felt that this game would do that. The game became popular very quickly, and was played on college campuses in the 1920s. In fact, it was one of Darrow's neighbors who introduced him to the game. Parker Brothers very quietly bought up old boards, and paid Lizzie Magie $500 for her patent rights. They printed up a few copies of The Landlord's Game, but only for her benefit.

The book follows Ralph Anspach, inventor of a game called Anti-Monopoly. He first invented the game in the 1970s, a time when trustbusting was big business. One day, he received a cease and desist letter from Parker Brothers, saying that his game and its name violated Parker Brothers' trademark for Monopoly. The book follows his legal battle, which focused on whether Parker Brothers had any right to a trademark for Monopoly, since it had existed prior to Darrow's patent in 1935. *Spoiler alert* In the end, Mr Anspach lost the first round, which led to several thousand of his games being buried in what is now a housing development in Mankato, MN. He ultimately won the right to sell his game, although Parker Brothers' trademark was never canceled.

The author does a good job of tracking down the origins of the game, and of following Mr Anspach's legal battles. Her book was limited by two major restrictions, both beyond her control. First, most of the key players are dead, so she had to rely on documents and 40-year-old depositions. Second, Hasbro, which bought Parker Brothers in 1991, declined to cooperate with the book. The book is still fascinating reading. There is a picture in the book of a board from the early 1920s with "Monopoly" printed in the center. It came up for sale on ebay last year (2014). If this had been available back in the 1970s, I wonder if Hasbro would still have a trademark on Monopoly. (As part of a settlement with Parker Brothers, Mr Anspach is not allowed to reopen litigation.)

The book is a great read. However, I suspect most people playing Monopoly won't even care. They will continue to pass Go, draw Chance and Community Chest cards, and hope they don't land on Boardwalk or Park Place with a hotel. McDonald's will still have its annual Monopoly promotion. Robert Kiyosaki and others will continue to promote playing Monopoly as a way of learning about how capitalism works (ironic, considering the origins of the game.)

Anti-Monopoly is still available for sale at Amazon and University Games. (The antimonopoly.com website listed in the book expired on 3/29/15.) I recently purchased an Anti-Monopoly game from Amazon. On the bottom of the box, in very small print, was a statement that Anti-Monopoly is a trademark owned by Hasbro, Inc, and is used pursuant to a license. I assume that was part of the settlement, or perhaps University Games negotiated that with Hasbro, because it's another huge irony. The man who fought Parker Brothers on the trademark for Monopoly now finds his game trademarked by Hasbro, successor to Parker Brothers. The book mentions how Parker Brothers then Hasbro tried to massage the origins of Monopoly as printed in the rules. Recent editions of Monopoly don't even mention the origins of the game.

Mr Darrow died in 1967, but his family continued to receive royalties for decades after his death (I wouldn't be surprised if they still do). One subtle impression I get from the book is this: Once in a while, cheaters do prosper. That is definitely a lesson in American capitalism you can learn from Monopoly.

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