Her Idea Became Someone Else’s Monopoly

Tammy Y. Allen, Director, Marketing & Programs, The NIIC
Photo by Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (The NIIC)

Most of us are familiar with the classic Monopoly board game, also available in various mobile apps. The scandal about its creation is less widely known. American game designer Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie created the game to educate and give voice to her political and economic views.

“Contrary to popular board game lore, Monopoly was invented not by an unemployed man during the Great Depression but in 1903 by a feminist who lived in the Washington, D.C., area and wanted to teach about the evils of monopolization.” NYTimes.com

From an entrepreneurial perspective, here’s the gist. Four points to ponder.

1.) Start with a great idea.

Introduced by her father to the social theorist and economist Henry George, Magie became a strong supporter of Georgism. It stated while people should own the value of what they produced, the value received from that land should equally belong to all members of society.

These beliefs influenced Magie’s great idea for The Landlord’s Game.

2.) Think beyond the patent.

Even if you follow the rules to secure a patent, that’s not enough. Magie secured a patent for her game in 1904 (expired in 1921) and again in 1923 (after several variations developed). By the way, check out USPTO.gov for more information about patents.

Did you know 97 percent of all patents never make any money for the patent holder?

Determine your purpose for pursuing a patent. Are you building a company around it? Innovating or expanding your business offerings? How will you use it?

The Landlords’ Game was played for 30 years before Charles Darrow essentially repackaged it as Monopoly. He received a patent for it in 1935 then sold it to Parker Brothers. Monopoly became the best-selling board game in America that year, with 20,000 sets produced every week. ChicagoTribune.com

3.) Leverage your IP.

Magie had a great idea and a patent for it but did not negotiate a fair deal for herself given the opportunity.

After Monopoly became a hit, Parker Brothers moved quickly to control the rights of it. The company contacted (then) elderly Lizzie Magie Phillips and offered her $500. They offered no royalties. The company promised to produce an unsullied version of The Landlords’ Game.

She sold the rights. What Magie created as a way to critique American greed devolved into a game glorifying land ownership and turning the bankruptcy of others into a celebration.

After manufacturing a few copies of the original game, the board game giant quickly and thoroughly buried it.

4.) Use experienced partners. 

Navigating your pathway to starting, growing and innovating your business can be tricky. It’s okay if you don’t have business expertise in some areas. Surround yourself with good partners to help ensure your great idea sees its full potential.

How can we help you? The NIIC is an entrepreneurial community. We work alongside business builders, inventors and dreamers to help them succeed.


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