Bloomsbury, 2015, 313 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Monopoly has never been just a boardgame, not to the American feminist and anti-monopolist, Lizzie Magie, who invented the game’s forerunner in 1904, nor to the US corporate giant, Parker Brothers, which, in seeking to gain a copyright monopoly on Monopoly, stole Magie’s idea in 1935 and ideologically cleansed her game from an anti-monopolist instructional tool into an endorsement of monopoly capitalism.
The journalist, Mary Pilon’s, history of Monopoly’s copyright scandals narrates the American origins of the hugely popular boardgame, better known in Australia through the version licensed to English manufacturers with its London properties from Old Kent Road to Mayfair.
With powerful monopolies dominating key industries and unrestrainedly gouging consumers at the end of the nineteenth century, strategies to ‘bust the trusts’ were being sought by progressives, amongst them Henry George, the ‘single-tax’ politician who proposed to reduce poverty by taxing only property and leaving working class income untaxed.
Magie was a single-taxer who invented her Landlord’s Game to spread the Georgist word. Her game had two sets of rules – one for a single-tax economy where no player could monopolise wealth, and one for monopoly capitalism where all wealth concentrated to just one player. Modified, hand-made versions flourished during the next three decades.
Amongst the commercial fans of Magie’s game was a Depression-hit salesman, Charles Darrow, who claimed it was his invention when he sold his intellectual property rights to the game, which he had patented as Monopoly, to Parker Bros. for $7,000 in 1935. The rebadged game went on to sell and make millions for Parker Bros.
Parker Bros., who were aware that Darrow’s patent had been fraudulently obtained, were vigilant in protecting their sole control of their ill-gotten money-spinner. Rival financially-themed games, and even unrelated games with the ‘-opoly’ suffix in their title (including Theopoly, designed by priests), were bought out or legally threatened for patent infringement.
The most serious potential obstacle to Parker Bros.’s bogus copyright was taken care of by paying the game’s true inventor, Magie, a measly $500 for her original patent for her Landlord’s Game, allowing it and its anti-big-business ideology to fade into obscurity whilst its monopolist set of rules became the sole set of Monopoly rules, endorsing corporate concentration and greed as players aimed to bankrupt all others.
When a new ideological challenge emerged in the 1970s from an anti-trust economics professor and anti-Vietnam-War activist, Ralph Anspach, with his Anti-Monopoly, Parker Bros. deployed the usual threat of litigation, supplemented by commercial intimidation of Anti-Monopoly’s potential distributors and sellers, and a vindictive display of corporate power in ostentatiously burying 40,000 copies of Anti-Monopoly in a Minnesota rubbish dump when an early court decision went Parker Bros. way. In 1983, however, after an epic eight year legal stoush, Parker Bros. finally lost their case against Anti-Monopoly, an appeals court ruling that Monopoly’s Georgist progenitor had long been in the public domain, rendering Monopoly’s trademark void.
Like Anspach, Pilon is enamoured of the anti-monopolistic battle by little business against big business. Capitalism, they believe, can be beneficial for all if only the “right to compete” were not stymied by the titans of corporate America and their profit-bloating, restrictive copyrights. Even in an oligopoly of small entrepreneurs, however, the profit principle is behind the harm the capitalist economic system does and this needs to be challenged. There is a boardgame, and concept, for that - the Marxist academic, Bertell Ollman’s, Class Struggle – one to which all the players exploited by capitalism can share common ownership.