What is copyrightable here ???

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  • I play a tile game called Mah Jongg and I admin a large players group on Facebook. There is also a league who puts out a card yearly with the hands that can be playerd to win, which they sell. They publish the new card every year on April first but sometimes it takes up to a week for all the players to recieve the new hands in the mail. Someone in my group posted a photo of the new hands so those who had not yet gotten their new cards could see the new hands while they waited. Someone screamed copurioght infringement and I was curioous about what is copywirteable on the card. Is it the hands, the card design? the placements of the sections? Since she was only sharing it for people to see and not selling it, I didnt see what the damage is, but I wanted to check with some experts.

  • hello Lajohni:

    First sorry for the delayed reply to your questions.  The CAN is still in its infancy but will grow up to be more timely.


    I play mah jongg as well.

    Your question is a hard one, and I am not sure of the answer but I have some thoughts:

    First, who is the league?  Are they a company/the app developer/or what? Do they create the hands?

    I think the hands have enough creative and originality to be protected by copyright.  Someone has to think through the steps, and put them in a specific order as well as developing the design of the hand.  In some ways, developing the hand is a bit like developing an app.  So I think both the placement and the hand are protected (and they may be the same thing).   

    The pictures on the tiles are creative but are they original.  Perhaps these pictures have existed a long time and they are in the public domain.  It is interesting to think that the very first tiles ever made are in the public domain.  If this is true, anyone can use the tiles, even modify them.

    Posting the hands online - my guess is that it would be a contract violation (not a copyright infringement).  I'm assuming that everyone who plays the game agrees to the end user license agreement (click yes) that probably says the game can only be used for personal, non-commercial use.  

    I realize that my response is far from definitive.  It would help to know who runs the league and who makes the hands.

    Good luck!


  • Lajohni,

    The designs on these cards are the portion that is creative, and creative works are highly protected under United States Copyright Law. Other things on the cards such as numerals are not copyrightable because they are considered "facts." However, even some of the standard design elements (such as the groups of tiny dots or bamboo reeds...not sure what they're officially called!) can be made to be unique and therefore creative by choice of design or color, etc. 

    The owner of the copyright would be the artist that created the card for the League, unless several people work together on the card in which case copyright would be split, depending on agreements between parties. If the card is a work for hire (the artist gets paid), or if there is an agreement, the League itself may own the copyright.

    If the copyright is in fact owned by an individual, this individual's permission should be obtained before posting to an internet forum or distributed through email. If the copyrights belong to the League, then the League itself would need to clarify this and grant permission for distribution. Even if the card is not sold by the League, the designs could be stolen from the internet, so I can understand some of the concerns.

    I hope this helps. Let me know if you have further questions.

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