Set: another copyright problem

3_Tuple.jpgThe game Set (designed by Marsha Falko in 1991) is a very enjoyable and innovative card game, in which the object is to find matching sets of three cards as quickly as possible. The deck of cards consists of 81 cards that are all unique combinations of four characteristics with three different options (3 to the power 4 = 81). For example, in the picture shown to the right, the characteristics are color, shape, shadings, and number of objects. The company Mustang Mobile (run by the Falko family) has the exclusive license for development of mobile versions of this game, but this company has (not yet) released a version for the iPhone. However, their exclusive license does not withhold others to do this (a recurrent problem). The following apps are straightforward implementations of Set for the iPhone (links redirect to iTunes):

I have not personally tried these apps, because I do not want to pay these developers for their apps. However, from the descriptions it is perfectly clear that the games involve exactly the same principle as Set. It even looks as if some of these developers are not just ignorant of any issues regarding intellectual property, but that they actively try to hide the original idea by using uninformative descriptions and strange visual design.

Mustang Mobile and the Falko family are apparently tracking down these apps, because there were two more version, 3-Tuple and Sets, that are not available anymore in the app store. Although there is no notice on what happened, I suspect that Mustang Mobile raised objections, and the apps had to be pulled. They should do so, and it will likely happen for the remaining four apps listed above. 3-Tuple was free, and I still have a copy (a screenshot is shown at the top of this post). There still exists a leftover user-forum for it. For the other version, Sets, I cannot find any information on the web anymore.

Don’t buy these apps! Wait for the rightful version, that will be made by the heirs of the originator of the game. Stealing of innovative ideas should not be supported.

Buy this one: The rightful version has arrived in the meantime: SET. see the updates and the comments for more information.

[Update 21 January 2009] Another one: Triple Touch. Exactly “Set”, nothing changed, nothing different.

[Update 6 Feburary 2009] Next one in line: iTrio, and the lite version iTrio Lite. I have the feeling that I have seen this design before, so this could be the reintroduction of the removed game “Sets” mentioned above.

[Update 17 February 2009] Another one to try it: SET. This one is so directly and blatantly a copy of the original that the developer is either has an agreement with Mustang Mobile, or just simply does not understand this world. The website of the develop doesn’t even exist, so I expect this one to vanish quickly again from the app store. [Update on update 27 February 2009] It turned out that this version is the official version! I didn’t try it out, but this would be the one to get.

[Update 24 February 2009] Wow, another one with direct reference to the original: Set!. Let’s see how long this one remains available. [Update on update 4 March 2009] It’s not gone, but it is now called Combo! So, apparently Mustang Mobile is enforcing its trademark on the name “set”, but not the principle of the game itself. Probably the game is not patented.

[Update 4 March 2009] One more: Troika.

[Update 12 March 2009] Another variant of the same idea: Pattrns.

[Update 26 March 2009] Basic SET! again, but with an interesting addition: the game Fetch! claims to allow online multiplayer participation in a game of SET! Now that sounds like a very nice addition to this game! I did not try it yet, but I look forward to it.

[Update 28 March 2009] Number 14: TriTouch.


12 Responses to “Set: another copyright problem”

  1. JoJo the dog faced boy Says:

    Game concepts are not protectable intellectual property. The trademark, trade dress, art, etc are. Hence the game Sets getting pulled down due to the name, and any game that uses the art or a look alike.

    Copyright can not and should not protect an idea.

  2. michael Says:


    I think you are confusing Trademark and Intellectual Property. A particular name for a product can be protected by applying for a trademark. For example, as discussed in an earlier post, the company ThinkFun has the trademark for the name Rush Hour, so nobody can publish this game under this name.

    In contrast, currently the ‘idea’ of a game is very well protected by Intellectual Property rights. Whatever you might think about IP laws (and I personally think that they are not developing in the right direction), the originator of a new game-concept deserves merit. The very least a developer should do is to acknowledge the source of his/her game. How much money there should be involved in this acknowledgment is a different discussion.

  3. JoJo the dog faced boy Says:

    Care to site the law that says that a game concept is protectable?
    Just about every game is derivative of an other in some way.

  4. Eric Herboso Says:

    JoJo: The US Supreme Court heard a case on this twenty years ago: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 580-81 (1985). They established that copyright law can only protect the “artistic” parts of a game, but not the “functional, “mechanical”, and “utilitarian” parts of it. In other words, I think you’re right.

    Interestingly, it seems to go even further than this. The “merger doctrine” is an accepted legal point of view that says that if there are only so many artistic ways of doing something, then it is not possible to copyright those artistic ways. In the case of Set, there’s a good argument to be said for the use of red, green, and blue as the three colors used, and one, two, and three for the three numbers used. Less clear, I think, are the shapes used.

    So it seems to me that what these rip-off apps are doing is not strictly illegal, at least by U.S. standards. Nevertheless, I find it reprehensible. The least they can do is to give credit where credit is due, if only for moral (and not legal) reasons.

    Michael: Anyway, when the official version comes out, I’d sure like it if you could remember to blog about it. I always did love that game, and I’d be glad to purchase it from the official source.

  5. michael Says:


    thanks for the clarification. So things are worse than I had though! I completely agree with you that developers should at least give credit by mentioning some names in the liner notes, or something like that.

    I’ll keep an eye open on any official versions coming along!

  6. michael Says:

    For all interested: Crossbones is free until the first of January!

  7. Andrew Smith Says:

    Wow–I didn’t realize there where that many copies! We just submitted a version of to the iPhone store, it is in the approval process (you can see a similar version beta @ ) — We have already worked with SET previously over the website, as they had originally had a cease & desist because they claimed the game violated their copyright. I undertsand this and didn’t want to take away from their profits so came up with a compromise for the online game that did not infringe on their copyright. I then modified the concept to have different gameplay options. Pattrns is obviously inspired by SET and is not a copy. What we do is a timed version of the 3 card solitaire game with the choice of many different elements (choose how many fills, colors, etc.) — all with custom pictures. The goal isn’t to finish the deck, but to increase your speed. When I first did the game I had links to Amazon to purchase SET and BLINK (another game just like SET) — but I removed them because of the confusion with the SET people.

    I’m going to put the game in the store for $1.99 — I think it stands alone as a matching game “similar to SET” but not a blatant copy. — Opinions/thoughts?

  8. Andrew Smith Says:

    Also note, we would love to give Credit to SET in the credits of the game, but can’t do that because that implies an endorsement from SET or a relationship–which would be unfair.

  9. michael Says:


    maybe I am missing something. If you think you do not infringe their copyright, why would it be unfair to imply a relationship? Is a sentence like “this game is inspired by the game of SET” really problematic? You might even add something like: “if you like this game, check out the original version for more great game play!” In that way you only would advertise the original game.

    Further, if it really turns out to be difficult to deal with the copyright holders of SET, then I would suggest to turn your attention to other puzzles. There are many very interesting puzzles around (check out this blog and the links therein) that are waiting for an iPhone version. Many of the originators would be very interested to cooperate.

  10. Andrew Smith Says:

    Don’t get me wrong–it was not difficult to deal with the copyright holders of SET. They informed me of the problem, I addressed it through their lawyers, and we came to an agreement for me to remove the exact SET “level” 3/3/3 from my website. I think they were very generous.

    My concern is that I can’t use their trademark (SET) or name without their permission. I will go ahead and add it to the new version to point to Amazon to buy a copy of SET — then I will let you know if they ask me not to do that. They didn’t specifically ask me that, I assumed it would be “not nice” to sound like I was somehow affiliated with them.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    Hey guys, this is an excellent post. I did notice the update on Feb 17th about the new iTunes SET. Actually the one linked there is the official version licensed by Mustang and approved by SET Enterprises.

    But, keep up the good fight. It’s awesome to see people protecting the games they love.

  12. Andrew Smith Says:

    Yes, Pattrns is up in the AppStore finally. It is inspired by SET as I noted here previously, and I’m trying to give SET credit as much as I am allowed. However gameplay is different. — There is only time game play right now, and you can mix up how many cards you have, how many shapes, fills, colors, etc.

    I’m glad to see SET has their version up. I’m also glad to see that our game (Pattrns) is different in that it lets you mix up the elements you play with to make it easier or harder. I think that helps clear up the idea that it is “Just a copy” as some have said.

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