Friend-of-the-Blog, Megan Raley, is a supremely talented artist. Among other things, she makes jewelry and, yesterday, announced that she was going to be making meeple earrings. (If you don’t know what “meeples” are, go run and play a game of the classic Carcassonne.) Well, that’s just cool. Unfortunately, I off-handedly ruminated as to whether or not that would be some sort of trademark violation. This followed with some discussion on the matter. Daniel pointed out that it’s a colloquial term; Fred noted Scrabble-tile earrings on the market…. I didn’t mean to set off a panic, but it is worth thinking about.
What’s at play here? A game piece is a physical expression of an idea and might fall under the purview of various forms of intellectual property, depending on the specific piece. For example, a Magic: The Gathering card contains art and flavor text that is copyrighted, the M:tG logo which is trademarked, and even certain process terms and icons, e.g., tapping, that are patented. So, could I make, say, business cards for my game store glued to M:tG cards? This is the sort of trick question lawyers love. Of course you can? You own the cards; you can cut them up and glue them into porno mags if it strikes you. The real question is: Could you turn around and sell those creations? Yes, under the first-sale doctrine. You can sell your unopened case of Legends booster packs; you can sell individual cards from your collection; and you can sell your Civil War diorama created from them. But, here’s what you can’t do: You can’t post images of your creation for purposes of advertising them for sale because that would constitute an impermissible publication of the protected material.
Fear not though, Megan. For, as best I can tell, meeples are indeed entirely generic or, to use the correct term, in the public domain. I can’t find anyone who asserts any sort of intellectual property right over them. There is no reference to any such claim in the Carcassonne rules. Indeed, though Carcassonne made them famous, many games use these generic pieces. In this way, they are more like a standard 6-sided die than a M:tG card. Now, Writer’s dice and Fudge dice on the other hand….