As the holiday season approaches, consumers purchase many games as gifts. Of all the games I’ve played, Bingo stands out as a favorite. Bingo has a long history—as a game and as a source for many works registered with the Copyright Office.
As a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, I volunteered at my church’s weekly Bingo game. I either pushed the coffee cart up and down the aisles or worked in the kitchen making pierogis. While the coffee and pierogis were interesting, the game of Bingo was absolutely fascinating. The superstition among the players was incredible—troll dolls, pictures of grandkids, Bingo markers arranged in a specific color order, and many other good luck charms graced each player’s area. Players firmly believed in the luck these items brought when they won and got quite upset when they didn’t. I vividly remember one woman, frustrated by no luck one night, standing up and yelling “this game is fixed!” before storming out.
Fixed or not, Bingo dates back to Italy in the 1500s where it was a form of a lottery game. It became known as Lotto throughout Europe and turned into a boxed game available for purchase in the 1880s and 1890s.
Bingo came to the United States in the early 1900s, and two men are credited with expanding Bingo’s popularity.
Hugh J. Ward began running the game at carnivals in Pittsburgh and around western Pennsylvania in the early 1920s. Its popularity as a carnival game spread, and in 1929, toy merchandiser Edwin Lowe came across the game at a traveling carnival in Atlanta. The game followed Ward’s rules, but they called it Beano because they used dried beans as markers.
Lowe took the game back to New York with him, and his friends found it just as fascinating as the carnival-goers had. He began to operate games in New York using the same equipment as the traveling carnival did.
With Bingo’s popularity booming, Ward developed a home version of the game. He registered a copyright for the rulebook “Bingo” in 1933 and described it as “Bingo, a modern game adapted to commercial use, to advertise merchandise and to stimulate sales.” He did not, however, renew the copyright.
Lowe mass-produced the game, and by the 1940s, Bingo had spread across the country. The game immediately inspired other creative works, especially music. “Bingo Nights” by Angel Del Valle and Tedy Demey (1940), “Bingo I’m in Love” by Lloyd West (1941), and “Bingo March” by John Mowat (1945) are just a few titles I found in the copyright registration records.
Under current copyright law, board games can be registered with the Copyright Office. According to the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, section 910, “Games often include both copyrightable and uncopyrightable elements. The copyrightable elements of a game may include text, artwork, sound recordings, and/or audiovisual materials. These elements may be protectable if they contain a sufficient amount of original authorship.” The Compendium also notes that “Uncopyrightable elements include the underlying ideas for a game and the methods for playing and scoring a game.”
Manufacturers continue to register elements of Bingo games today. Using the online Copyright Public Catalog, I found recent registrations for Classic Bingo, Travel Bingo, Bridal Shower Bingo, and Bilingual Bingo. Bingo also continues to inspire music—I found new registrations for Bingo-related song titles almost every year. I also found other Bingo-inspired creative works, including greeting cards, oil paintings, tote bags, and jewelry. More than 100 years after arriving in the United States, Bingo remains one of the most popular—and inspirational—games.