/ Modified mar 14, 2024 9:01 a.m.

C-e-a-s-e and desist: 'The New York Times' goes after Wordle spinoffs

The New York Times has sent takedown notices to "hundreds" of coders who've made clones of the popular word game, Wordle.

wordle screenshot A screenshot of a typical instance of the online word game Wordle.
Josh Wardle (website/game), Berrely (vectorizing)

By Joe Hernandez | NPR

The New York Times has sent takedown notices to "hundreds" of coders who've made clones of the popular word game, Wordle.

Wordle is a hit online sensation where players have to guess a five-letter word in six tries. Since the newspaper bought it in 2022 from creator Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle, the word game has spawned a litany of spinoffs, from the more complex Quordle to the irreverent Sweardle.

Now, the Times is accusing some Wordle clone creators of copyright infringement violations and asking that their code be removed from the website GitHub, a platform that lets developers publicly share their code. The news was first reported last week by 404 Media.

The Times has filed at least three Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown requests since January with coders on GitHub over allegations related to Wordle, 404 Media reported. The law allows copyright holders to request that any material infringing on their copyright be removed from the internet, according to the Copyright Alliance.

One of those takedown requests went to Minneapolis software engineer Chase Wackerfuss, who created a clone called Reactle. Programmers could use Reactle's code repository—the website's term for where code and other files are stored—to create Wordle spinoffs of their own.

The notice requested that Reactle's code repository as well as any repository created by a coder who used Reactle's code — or "forked" it — be deleted.

Times spokesperson Jordan Cohen said "hundreds of people" were notified via GitHub, and issued the following statement:

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 authorization or permission. GitHub provided the user with an opportunity to alter his code and remove references to Wordle, but he declined.

According to the takedown request posted by 404 Media, the Gray Lady argued that some of those copyrighted elements include Wordle's green and yellow tiles indicating correct letter guesses as well as its 5x6 grid.

Reactle's creator Wackerfuss told NPR in a statement that he removed its repository from GitHub after receiving the takedown notice from the Times, and that his heart went out to the developers who had used Reactle to create word games of their own.

"Over the last two years, thousands of people have helped contribute, either directly or indirectly, to Reactle. Whether their motivation was to learn software engineering, contribute their skills to improving the project, or fork the code and build a game, the intention was always to learn and have fun," Wackerfuss said.

"It's just a shame we're losing this software and the community around it."

The Times said in a May 2022 press release of its financial results that Wordle had enticed "an unprecedented tens of millions of new users" to the outlet and it had had its "best quarter ever for net subscriber additions to Games."

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