The true story of Monopoly is no secret to board game lovers: It was Elizabeth Magie who first drew the square board framed by properties, railroads, and utilities, and she called her creation The Landlord’s Game.
“Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system,” she wrote in 1902, “and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.” She received a patent two years later (which you can read here), but it ultimately did her little good.
In 1935, a fellow named Charles Darrow claimed her idea as his own and sold it to Parker Brothers, which in turn surrounded its newfound gold mine with an army of lawyers. In her book, The Monopolists, author Mary Pilon revisits the sordid story of Monopoly and recounts how those understandably touchy lawyers almost undid the board game giant.
In 1974, attorneys for Parker Brothers sent a cease and desist letter to Ralph Anspach, an economics professor at San Francisco State. It had occurred to Anspach during a lecture on Adam Smith that Monopoly was problematic. For capitalism to succeed, he believed, it must be competitive. The board game’s ultimate lesson of success through corporate monopolization was thus flawed.
Worse yet, because people associated family game nights from youth with a board labeled Monopoly across its center, they were more or less being conditioned to appreciate the idea of such monopolies. He resolved to create an anti-monopoly game, which he called Anti-Monopoly. The game attracted a small, enthusiastic audience with the potential for real growth. But it also attracted the attention of Parker Brothers, which wanted it stopped.
Anspach hired a lawyer and began looking into whether Parker Brothers was, in a moment of supreme irony, committing an antitrust violation against Anti-Monopoly. They reasoned that a common trait of monopolies was to use legal threats to scare off competition. Depositions ensued, and though Anspach held his own against the Parker Brothers legal team, he was a teacher of modest means and they were a multimillion-dollar corporation with a lot to lose. The idea of going through with the lawsuit seemed crazy.
It was, therefore, a revelation when Anspach’s son happened upon a passage in a book noting that Charles Darrow hadn’t actually invented Monopoly. If a Monopoly board game preceded Charles Darrow’s 1935 patent, that patent might be in the public domain and thus overturned. Monopoly might, in fact, be built on a house of Chance cards.
Anspach’s first big break in this line of attack came during a television appearance in Oregon, where he was promoting Anti-Monopoly. An elderly woman called in to the show, noting that she knew someone who played Monopoly long before the Great Depression (and thus before the Darrow patent). This inspired Anspach to track down the players of pre-Darrow Monopoly and assemble an accurate history of the game. Such a history would help prove that Darrow had essentially patented a game like chess or checkers—a long popular game to which he was a latecomer. Anspach took out an ad in Christian Science Monitor and waited, following leads where they came.
The Misspelling on Every Monopoly Board
Monopoly properties are named after real places in and around Atlantic City, New Jersey. Pull out your yellowed Rand McNally, though, and you’ll note that Marvin Gardens is nowhere to be seen. You will, however, find a place between Margate City and Ventnor City called Marven Gardens, spelled with an e. The yellow property, misspelled to this day, became a problem for Parker Brothers during the Anti-Monopoly legal process.
Through dogged detective work (and dumb luck), Anspach learned the names Charles and Olive Todd, and paid the couple a visit. He discovered that Charles Todd, along with his wife Olive, his childhood friend Esther, and Esther’s husband Charles Darrow, played a handmade board game together that concerned real estate. Darrow was immediately taken with the game and copied down the board and its rules. On Charles Todd’s original, hand-drawn board, itself a copy, he misspelled Marven, which Darrow duplicated in full. This, perhaps, established plagiarism.
Meanwhile, as a result of the Christian Science Monitor ad, word of mouth, and increasing interest in the Anti-Monopoly trial, other, older variants of the game came to light, with properties named after other locales. All of this was bad news for Parker Brothers, which, if it didn’t have a troubling legal situation on its hands, certainly now had a public relations problem. The story of Charles Darrow was central to the Monopoly story; they even printed it in the game’s instructions.
To make this headache go away, General Mills, parent company to Parker Brothers, made an offer to Anspach: In exchange for rights to Anti-Monopoly, they would give him $500,000 and an executive position at Parker Brothers. Anspach refused (which seemed crazier than filing the lawsuit in the first place). He feared that just as Parker Brothers eventually purchased rights to The Landlord’s Game for $500 before burying it forever, they might also kill Anti-Monopoly.
However, Anspach lost the case. And to make an example of him, Parker Brothers—now in possession of 40,000 copies of Anti-Monopoly—really did bury the game, literally: They called journalists to witness the interment of the games in a landfill. The land was quickly sold, and in proper Monopoly fashion, houses were built on top of it.
Meanwhile, a possible legal opening was discovered in the opinion against Anti-Monopoly. There was, perhaps, a misreading of trademark law in the decision. Anspach appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a reexamination of the validity of the Monopoly trademark.
The second hearing began in 1980, and again, Anti-Monopoly lost. In 1982, however, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision. When the Supreme Court later declined to hear an appeal, it was official: “Monopoly” was no longer a valid trademark.
Today, of course, Parker Brothers still owns Monopoly. Following the lawsuit, major corporations began lobbying Congress to protect longstanding trademarks. The Trademark Act was soon amended and signed into law by President Reagan, and the Monopoly trademark was restored. The amendment did not apply to Anti-Monopoly, however, which is still available in stores today. Meanwhile, the whole story in glorious detail can be found in The Monopolists.
A version of this article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2024.