Trivial Pursuit Lawsuits

Legal issues and cases related to the Trivial Pursuit board game.

Trivial Pursuit Lawsuits

There have been some Trivial Pursuit games in my house that could have ended in legal action--my mother and father very nearly divorced over the game's rules on a fateful Family Game Night in 1994. My father refused to acknowledge the game rule that states that two game pieces can exist on the same space at the same time. Dad was behind Mom by two pie pieces, a rare event for our Family Game Nights, and even when shown the rule in the official rule book ("NOTE: Any number of tokens may occupy the same space at the same time") he declared that it was our House Rule that only one player piece could be on one space. It got a little heated. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and no lawyers were hired.

Believe it or not, there are two major lawsuits about Trivial Pursuit, both of which went all the way to higher courts. Both have to do with the invention of the game, and though neither lawsuit was upheld, they both contain enough intrigue for fans of Trivial Pursuit that they're worth remembering.

Fred L. Worth vs. Trivial Pursuit

What do Peter Falk, an air traffic controller, and Trivial Pursuit have in common? A 1984 lawsuit against the creators of America's favorite trivia board game. Here's the weird and wild story of Fred L. Worth and his trivia book.

Fred L. Worth, a former air traffic controller and big-time trivia buff, believed that trivia was about to be the next big thing. And who could blame him? Trivia exploded out of the Ivy League as the new "it" game for young educated Americans. Part nostalgia, part friendly competition, trivia combined fanatical obsession with minutiae and hot-blooded sports competition and statistics to create a game that you could take with you anywhere. Trivia competitions at Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools were such a big deal that these contests continue to this very day.

Worth, himself a trivia guru, wanted to cash in on what he thought would become a huge industry. He created a book in 1974 called The Trivia Encyclopedia. Worth was a smart man, and realized that there was no way he could claim copyright or trademark on publicly-available statements of fact. No one can own the fact that the average baby has 300 bones at birth, for example. What Worth could trademark is his collection and presentation of trivia facts, not the facts themselves. Taking a cue from cartographers (who often put fake lakes on their maps for the same reason), Worth inserted at least one fabricated fact. He would use this fact to prove in the future that someone stole his trivia as collected in his book. Pretty sneaky, and something I'd never put past your average Trivial Pursuit shark.

The fact that Worth made up? "What was Columbo's first name?" Columbo was a massively popular TV show starring Peter Falk as a smart-mouthed, "Gotcha!" type detective. Worth made up the fact that his first name was "Phillip," and sat back and waited for this fake fact to appear in a future trivia book or game. It has never been proven, but apparently Worth made up a few more fake pieces of trivia to go along with the Columbo bombshell.

When Trivial Pursuit appeared in the early 80s and soon became a huge hit, generating more than $250 million in sales in just two years, Fred L. Worth got angry. Worth had himself tried to market a trivia board game and failed miserably. Worth looked through Trivial Pursuit and noticed that there were plenty of similarities between the questions in Trivial Pursuit and the questions in his trivia book--typos identical to his own were present, and so was that fateful fake Columbo question.

On October 23, 1984, Worth filed a lawsuit in the federal district court for Southern California against John and Chris Haney, Ed Werner, and Scott Abbott, who created the game, as well as against the game's US and Canadian distributors, Selchow & Righter and Horn Abbott Ltd. He asked for $300 million in damages.

Long legal story short, Worth never won his suit. The creators of the game admitted copying from his book, but also showed how they copied from tons of other sources as well. This copying was declared research by the California court, and the case moved all the way up to the Supreme Court on appeal. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal, siding with the lower court who declared that a board game with questions and answers was substantially different from an encyclopedia containing these facts.

Fred L. Worth continues to publish trivia guides and other books, but isn't nearly as wealthy as he would have been had his "Phillip Columbo" bit succeeded.

The Hitchhiker's Lawsuit

In 1994, David Wall, a Canadian citizen from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, filed a lawsuit against Trivial Pursuit's creators.

Wall's claim?

David Wall said that he and a friend were picked up by Chris Haney while hitchhiking in the fall of 1979. During the ride, Wall claimed to have told Haney details about a trivia board game idea he had--details included the shape of the playing pieces and the "pie piece" tokens.

Wall's mother even took the stand and testified that she had seen Wall's drawings of plans for a board game that looked suspiciously similar to Trivial Pursuit. Unfortunately for Wall and his poor mother, those drawings had gone missing or been accidentally destroyed. Haney took the stand and claimed he'd never met Wall, and eventually in 2007 the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled against Wall's claim, citing a lack of evidence.

For his part, Wall pursued this claim for thirteen years at much personal legal expense. David Wall claimed that right before the game went to market, Mr. Haney called him and asked if Wall wanted to be an investor in what Wall claimed was his own creation. David Wall declined, saying that he wanted to be named as the game's sole inventor. Had Wall invested (if this phone call ever even happened) he could have been a part of a multi-million dollar megahit. Instead, he's somewhat of a laughingstock of the trivia and Trivial Pursuit community.

Both of these lawsuits failed to prove what they set out for--and most people think they were just attempts to cash in on the Trivial Pursuit craze. Fred L. Worth had the most likely claim on some of that pie piece gold, but the California court's finding that Worth's book and the Trivial Pursuit game are too different for a trademark claim has held up over the years.