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I told some of my friends and co-workers about a board game I designed, and we're hoping to play it sometime soon. However, I am not sure if I should let everyone sign a non-disclosure agreement or not.

It is a board game that I have put a lot of time into. I haven't made anybody sign an agreement so far (Played various times with friends and family), but as the game is getting closer to a finished product, I feel like it would be professional to do so.

What type of agreement/document would be appropriate, if I do get an NDA?

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What would be the point? It's too late. The whole point of NDAs is to be able to show someone something without fearing they "steal" it. If they have already seen it... unless you plan to point a gun to their head until the sign (hint: not a good idea; quite illegal too) –  Lohoris Jan 10 '11 at 12:16

3 Answers 3

Disclaimer: Ask a lawyer. Unless you happen to find one here, I wouldn't rely on information from the internet to be legally accurate. I'm not a lawyer and what I do know about laws pertains to Swiss Laws and is likely different in your location.

What I was once told in a class about laws is that in such a situation you should make a copy of your drafts and deposit it with a notary and have him date the draft with a legally recognized "certificate". That way if someday you need to prove that you had that particular idea first this will go a long way.

Assuming that in a few months Hasbro (for example) publishes a game suspiciously similar to yours. What is it you really want? I assume it's:

  • Recognition for the idea
  • Getting them to stop selling the thing
  • Getting compensation from them

An NDA would only allow you to go after the person that passed the information along (if you even find out). But this is probably the least of your concerns. I'm no expert but I don't think you really need a formalized agreement to go after an imitator once you have established that it is you who is being imitated.

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The answer is no. I've played early and late prototypes from dozens of published boardgame designers including several who are successful enough to do it for a living and I've never been asked to sign an NDA by any of them. Boardgame ideas just aren't worth stealing.

The only time I've been asked to sign boardgame NDAs is by unpublished designers who were inordinately fond of their ideas (no insult intended). Most ideas don't actually turn into publishable games, and even when they do, a very small percentage of them actually get published.

Worse, boardgame ideas aren't actually protectable: the only law that protects ideas is a patent, and no boardgame patent has been successfully defended in court (the only exceptions are games with mechanical designs, like Hungry, Hungry Hippos or MouseTrap). If you want to see money wasted search the patent office for boardgame patents: I've paged through hundreds and have yet to find one that actually became a recognizable published game. I know of two examples of patented games that were published, and only one of them, Magic: The Gathering went on to make any money.

Don't worry about your idea being stolen. Focus on playing the game with as many people as possible, and then when you think you've got something publishable, get as many people as you can that you don't know to play it without you there, just with rules and a prototype (called "blind playtesting").

If your idea survives all of the changes you'll discover you need to make after you work through the results of blind playtesting, then start approaching publishers. You'll discover that none of them will sign NDAs either, though for a more practical reason: they may well have something in development that is astonishingly like your game, and they'd lose the ability to publish it due to the NDA. That, or they've already received submissions that are remarkably similar to yours, with the same problem.

It turns out that most ideas, including game ideas, build on what already exists, consciously or not, and that very similar or even identical ideas come to multiple people at about the same time, as they're exposed to much the same things. It doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing, it's just a matter of the reality of ideas.

Anyway, I don't mean to discourage you; rather, I encourage you to go forth and test, redesign, and test some more until you've polished something really great. And then I look forward to playing it!


Note: I am not an attorney, so do not take what I've told you as legal advice. I am relaying what I've learned from publishers and designers while involved in the game design world over the last ten years.

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Patents do not protect ideas - they protect implementations. This is a common misconception. And remember that if you are in the US, UK or New Zealand (and probably most other jurisdictions) you will retain copyright whether you enforce it or not. You just need to be able to prove that you made the design first. No need for (c) symbols or anything like that - they are legally meaningless. Dates on your design notes will probably work fine. If anyone publishes an identical (or substantially similar) game then you can exercise your copyright. (This is also not legal advice.) –  Cameron Skinner Jan 10 '11 at 16:37
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There only one thing I could say that Matthew didn't already say: I've worked as a game developer at Steve Jackson Games, had two games published through a publisher (AEG) and playtested over 120 of my games with co-workers and friends. In that time, I've never-ever had anyone sign an NDA. Your co-workers and friends aren't going to steal your idea, and a publisher (who wants to keep getting outside submissions) will not steal your idea. If you're unconvinced, float your question over at the Board Game Designers Forum. I guarantee you'll get a similar response. Best of luck! –  invisiblejon Jan 10 '11 at 16:55
    
@Cameron I understand the distinction you're making, but the point is that patent protect an implementation of an idea, whether a process or design patent. Copyright does not protect ideas in the same sense; rather, they protect a specific expression only, and therefor offer no protection for anything but the artwork and specific text of the rules and cards and such. Gameplay is not protected by copyright. In fact, the copyright office devotes a page to it: copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html –  Matthew Frederick Jan 10 '11 at 17:40
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@Cameron While you do not legally need to file a copyright claim in the US (since 1974), there are two very real advantages. First, you have much stronger proof of origin than your own records, which is much better protection in court. Secondly, and more importantly, if you do not file then the most you can recover is direct damage -- sales someone else made instead of you -- plus court costs. If you do file then you can also recover indirect damage to your business/brand, often more than the direct damages. It's only $35 in the US, well worth it. –  Matthew Frederick Jan 10 '11 at 17:48
    
Fair enough. I'm not so familiar with US law. All the more reason to consult an IP lawyer in your own jurisdiction! –  Cameron Skinner Jan 10 '11 at 19:36

I've done lots of playtesting and never been asked to sign anything. My friend Jay has recently gotten some games published and he's blogging about the experience. You might find his posts on playtesting interesting.

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