New York Times cracks down on Wordle clones, raising copyright concerns among game creators

Wordle itself has faced criticism for its striking similarity to Lingo
An undated image of the Wordle Logo. — NY Times
An undated image of the Wordle Logo. — NY Times

In an effort to safeguard its widely popular word puzzle game, Wordle, The New York Times has initiated a series of legal actions against numerous clones, raising concerns about the fate of countless games inspired by the web-based sensation.

The New York Times, which acquired Wordle in 2022, has started copyright takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against various GitHub developers responsible for Wordle clones. 

The legal notifications state ownership not only of the Wordle name but also of the copyrighted gameplay, specifically highlighting the unique 5x6 tile layout and the grey, yellow, and green colour scheme, as reported by HT Tech.

The first legal action by The New York Times takes place in January, targeting unofficial Korean and Bosnian-language versions of the game. This week, additional requests were aimed at Wirdle, a variant created by the language group I Hear Dee in 2022 to promote the Shaetlan language, and Reactle, an open-source Wordle clone developed using React, TypeScript, and Tailwind. Notably, Reactle was created before The New York Times acquired Wordle, according to its creator, Chase Wackerfuss.

The impact of the legal offensive extends beyond Reactle itself, impacting approximately 1,900 games derived from its code on GitHub. The DMCA notice contends that these derivatives, despite potential variations, are created in "bad faith" and allegedly replicate the gameplay exactly from the Reactle repository. Several developers, participating in a Hacker News thread, claim to have encountered similar DMCA takedown threats.

Reactle's creator, Wackerfuss, has chosen to withdraw the game from circulation, expressing a desire to avoid a legal confrontation with The New York Times.

Read more: 16 exciting games like Wordle, offering daily challenges

Responding to inquiries from Media, The New York Times issued a statement clarifying its position:

“The Times has no issue with individuals creating similar word games that do not infringe The Times's ‘Wordle' trademarks or copyrighted gameplay. The Times took action against a GitHub user and others who shared his code to defend its intellectual property rights in Wordle. The user created a ‘Wordle clone' project that instructed others how to create a knock-off version of The Times's Wordle game featuring many of the same copyrighted elements. As a result, hundreds of websites began popping up with knock-off ‘Wordle' games that used The Times's 'Wordle' trademark and copyrighted gameplay without authorisation or permission.”

Ironically, Wordle itself has faced criticism for its striking similarity to Lingo, a game show from the 1980s where participants guess five-letter words, accompanied by a colour-changing grid based on accuracy. The legal dispute over Wordle clones adds another dimension to the ongoing conversation surrounding the game's origins and influences.