A Five-Letter Word for ‘Rip-Off’

Whenever I write about rip-offs, there’s inevitably some amount of whataboutism in the arguments from the ripper-offer or their defenders. So it was with last week’s brouhaha over blatant Wordle rip-offs appearing in the App Store, and Zach Shakked’s shameless “Wordle - The App” in particular.

Count me firmly in the “Everything Is a Remix” camp.1 George Lucas mashed up Flash Gordon with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, built upon VFX innovations from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and created something utterly original in Star Wars. Quentin Tarantino obviously loved and drew inspiration from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire,2 but Reservoir Dogs was anything but a rip-off. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” — or something like that.

Some good rules of thumb, if you’re weighing whether a derivative new work crosses the threshold into ripping off the original: If the derivative steals the original’s title or name, that’s a rip-off. If the derivative is designed to confuse people into thinking it is the original — as Shakked’s Wordle clone clearly was — that’s a rip-off. If the derivative is indistinguishable from the original or brings nothing new to the table, it’s probably a rip-off.

One game that’s come up repeatedly in discussions about Wordle’s originality is Lingo, a TV game show that first ran in the U.S. in 1987,3 and versions of which remain on the air in a few countries, including the U.K. Current U.K. Lingo host Adil Ray posted this snippy tweet on January 5 — before the Wordle App Store kerfuffle:

Hey peeps, if you’re going to play a game that looks like ours, works like ours, smells like ours and basically is OURS it’s only right you give us a plug. Lingo back today @3pm @itv #lingo #Wordle 😍🤪

When last week’s controversy erupted, I watched some footage of Lingo, and rolled my eyes at the “Wordle is just a rip-off of Lingo” allegations. Yes, both games are about guessing five-letter words. But a game show where you compete against other contestants and against a clock “smells” quite different from Wordle’s solo gameplay and leisurely “take as much time as you want” pace.

Turns out Lingo isn’t just a TV game show, though. It’s an officially-licensed video game — in both the App Store and Play Store. David Barnard was the first person I saw who pointed to the official Lingo game, tweeting thus:

The OG Wordle (ahem, Lingo) app is absolutely abysmal. Same game mechanics, but with punitive free-to-play BS.

That description is generous. Lingo might not be the worst game on the App Store, but it’s the worst and most oppressively dystopic game I’ve ever played. The mechanics aren’t quite the same as Wordle either: the Lingo game is timed, like the TV show, and the keyboard, bizarrely, doesn’t tell you which letters you’ve already tried. But the official Lingo game is so much worse than that. There are 30-second unskippable video ads between levels, coins and gems to collect and of course purchase with real money,4 and, inexplicably, a mandatory bingo game between each level of the word game. Corny graphics, terrible music, and even the “how to play” onboarding is frustrating. And of course they admit to a whole slew of data tracking in their App Store metadata and ask to be permitted to track you, and if you grant Lingo permission to send you notifications they send a few per day every day reminding you to play more Lingo.

Yes, both games involve guessing five-letter words, but Josh Wardle’s Wordle is a wonderfully simple, totally free game designed only to bring people a bit of serene enjoyment for a few minutes per day. The official Lingo app is an ugly cacophonous confusing jumble of concepts intended to hook players on in-app purchases, and whose only saving grace is that it’s no fun at all to actually play and thus, although not for lack of trying, not the least bit addictive in practice.

There’s a reason you probably never heard of the official Lingo app.

A few other related games:

  • Words With Friends is a very popular Scrabble-like game, but it is not a Scrabble rip-off. There’s only one “Scrabble” in the App Store and it’s licensed from Hasbro. (“Scrubble” might be crossing the rip-off line, though.)

  • Andy Baio mentioned Jotto, a two-player paper-and-pencil secret word game from the 1950s.

  • Word Game Hero is an iOS game for iPhone and iPad by Jake Nelson. It’s a 4-to-7-letter-word guessing game, free to play with ads after a five-day trial period, and $3 for a one-time unlock for ad-free unlimited play. It’s well-made, and very iOS-y, including support for SharePlay to play with friends over FaceTime. It’s also clearly inspired by Wordle, as Nelson graciously acknowledges in the Settings screen, with links to both Wordle and Lingo. I’d say the gameplay is within shouting distance of a Wordle rip-off — the color choices and plain flat graphics are straight from Wordle, and the share-your-results text (example) is just like Wordle’s but with differently shaped emoji (which different shapes, admittedly, are more accessible) — but to my eyes it doesn’t cross the rip-off line, and more importantly, doesn’t even vaguely attempt to pass itself off as “Wordle”. It’s also doing something Wordle doesn’t want to do: let you play as many levels as you’d like. I’d say it is to Wordle as Words With Friends is to Scrabble.

  • Lastly, Saltong, a web-based game by Carl de Guia that bills itself right at the top as “A Filipino Clone of Wordle”, with 4- and 7-letter-word variants. Doesn’t pass itself off as Wordle, gives prominent and full credit to the original Wordle, and uses words from an entirely different language. Not a rip-off.

  1. Speaking of which, you do know that Kirby Ferguson has relaunched “Everything Is a Remix” and the first two parts are already up on YouTube, right? So great. ↩︎

  2. I watched City on Fire decades ago on VHS (or maybe DVD?), and thinking about it now made me consider a re-watch. Alas, it seems unavailable to buy or stream online in the U.S. It’s bananas that it was easier to find “old” movies on physical media at my beloved local video store 20 years ago than it is today on streaming platforms and online stores. Netflix’s old model of renting discs sent through the mail offered way more movies than all streaming services combined do today. Don’t get me started on the general unavailability of James Cameron’s True Lies or The Abyss↩︎︎

  3. Fun fact: the original Lingo was hosted by Michael Reagan, whose father was at the time president of the United States. ↩︎︎

  4. Lingo’s age rating is “4+”. It strikes me as wrong that any game with in-app purchases should be rated for young children. Real-world casinos don’t have slot machines for children; the App Store shouldn’t either. ↩︎︎