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Wexler v. Hasbro, Inc.

In idea submission case, district court grants summary judgment in favor of toy company Hasbro, holding that plaintiff’s general “mash-up” board game idea lacked novelty and that his rebuttal of evidence that Hasbro independently developed its Connect 4/NERF mash-up game was speculative and could not defeat summary judgment.

Plaintiff David Wexler, a professional toy inventor whose father invented the popular game Connect 4, pitched various ideas for toys and board games to Hasbro Inc., a global toy and game company, between 2007 and 2015. One of those ideas was for “mash-ups” of various Hasbro-branded games such as Monopoly/Trouble and Jenga/Twister. Separately, plaintiff pitched an idea for a specific mash-up game that would combine Connect 4 game play with NERF guns, in which players would use NERF projectiles to shoot four in a row on a Connect 4-inspired vest. After considering each idea, Hasbro ultimately passed on both. In 2019, Hasbro began selling a line of products called “game mash+ups,” featuring combinations of classic Hasbro games such as Monopoly/Jenga and Candy Land/Connect 4. None of Hasbro’s mash-ups matched the specific game combinations that plaintiff pitched. Hasbro also began selling a game called Connect 4 Blast!, involving a stand-alone Connect 4 grid from which players would dislodge discs using a NERF gun. Plaintiff sued Hasbro for breach of implied contract, misappropriation, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the game company, dismissing all of plaintiff’s claims.

The district court first observed that each of plaintiff’s four claims requires proof that his idea is novel and that Hasbro used the idea unlawfully.  

The court distilled plaintiff’s general mash-up game idea into four elements: “(1) each product in the collection combines elements of game play from two preexisting products; (2) the products involved are Hasbro classics that invoke consumer nostalgia and good-will; (3) the names of the products in the collection utilize the preexisting names of the component products; and (4) the collection involves a line of products.”

On the novelty issue, the court looked at several factors, including (1) whether the idea is a generic concept or one of specific application, (2) how many people know of the idea, (3) how different the idea is from generally known ideas and (4) how commercially available the idea is. On the first factor, the court reasoned that the four elements of plaintiff’s mash-up idea were merely general descriptions of what a product line could look like, especially because Hasbro did not develop any of plaintiff’s specific game combinations. On the remaining factors, the court reasoned that combining play elements from existing games into a new game was common and commercially available in the toy industry. In particular, the court noted, plaintiff admitted that this concept was “one of the most longstanding and ubiquitous game design techniques in the industry.” 

The district court also reasoned that the second element of plaintiff’s mash-up idea—the use of Hasbro classics that invoke nostalgia and good will—lacked novelty because Hasbro had sold new versions of its classic games in the past. The third element of plaintiff’s idea was also not unique, because capitalizing on brand equity by using the names of preexisting products on new products is common in the industry. Finally, the court reasoned that inventors commonly present their proposed concepts in the context of product lines and thus the fourth element of plaintiff’s mash-up idea was also unoriginal. The court ultimately concluded that no material issue of fact existed as to whether plaintiff’s combination of these four elements was novel, and granted summary judgment in favor of Hasbro on plaintiff’s general mash-up idea.

Turning to plaintiff’s specific Connect 4/NERF idea, the court held that plaintiff failed to raise a question of fact as to whether Hasbro used his idea in creating its game Connect 4 Blast! Each of plaintiff’s four claims required proof of some nexus between his disclosure of his idea and Hasbro’s use of that idea, and unrebutted evidence that Hasbro independently developed its own idea would also be fatal. Hasbro presented evidence that one of its game designers independently developed Connect 4 Blast! in 2019 without knowledge of plaintiff’s idea. Attempting to rebut Hasbro’s evidence, plaintiff argued that his idea may have been shared internally among Hasbro employees after his initial pitch meeting in 2015 and claimed that Hasbro had a general practice of employee collaboration in game creation. The court concluded that plaintiff’s rebuttal evidence was speculative at best and insufficient to raise a question of fact for trial.

Summary prepared by Sarah Schacter and Marwa Abdelaziz