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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Trivia World

Clash of the trivia titans

In 1984, the sedate world of trivia was rocked by a $300-million lawsuit full of accusations of plagiarism and monster legal mumbo-jumbo about the intricate world of intellectual property rights. Even TV's Lt. Columbo would have been mystified ... and it was all his fault!

The party of the first part: The Super Trivia Encyclopedia

Our story begins in 1974, when a former Sacramento air traffic controller named Fred L. Worth saw his “The Trivia Encyclopedia” published. In 1977, he followed it up with “The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia,” which appears in the background on the tour bus in the 1970s movie "Almost Famous." The books became a phenomenon, and in 1981 he released “Super Trivia, vol. II.”

Fred L. Worth had become to trivia in the 1970s when Puff Daddy was to gunplay at clubs in the 1990s.

Worth, however, had a problem. He knew that there was money in the trivia biz and he wanted to make it. But the problem he had is that copyright law protects the expression of facts, not the facts themselves. Since his book was little more than facts, with little creative writing to jazz it up, Worth worried that somebody would steal his work and make the profit that rightfully should be his.

But he had hit on an idea. Mapmakers, who face a similar problem, protect themselves by putting deliberate mistakes in their work: fake lakes, rotten roads, that kind of thing. So Worth added a false fact of his own, a little time bomb he could detonate on any villain that encroached on his territory. Then he sat back and waited, prepared to defend his work on the basis of copyright, not to any one fact, but to his compilation of the whole.

The party of the second part: Trivial Pursuit

Flash forward to the early 1980s. Two Montreal newspaper staffers, upset that they had to buy yet another edition of "Scrabble" to replace some lost tiles, noticed that there was a lot of money to be made in board games. (Actually, there isn't. Board game designers usually wallow on the verge of insolvency.)

The game they created, Trivial Pursuit, generated sales volume of over $256 million by the end of 1984. And Fred L. Worth was steamed. He'd tried to sell somebody on the idea of a trivia board game, and found no takers.

But it wasn't jealousy that had Worth upset. A lot of the questions bore a suspicious similarity to material from his books. In fact, he would decide that a third of the questions had been lifted from "Super Trivia." In some cases, the game even copied the typographical errors and misprints. (Not to mention the book's unintentionally false facts.)

Fred L. Worth rumpled secret weapon

It was time for Fred to set off his bomb. He began looking for the false fact he had planted in his game. And there it was. What was Lt. Columbo's first name? "Philip," said Trivial Pursuit.


"Ah ha!" shouted Worth. He had simply made up this business about Philip Columbo. His false fact had been stolen and he now had the evidence. On October 23, 1984, he filed a lawsuit in the federal district court for Southern California, against John and Chris Haney, Ed Werner, and Scott Abbott, who had created the game, as well as against the game’s US and Canadian distributors, Selchow & Righter and Horn Abbott Ltd. Worth wanted $300 million in damages.

Unfortunately, that's about as far as he got. The trap he had sprung proved useless when the Trivial Pursuit people admitted copying from "Super Trivia." However, they also copied from lots of other people. As one Web site puts it, “When you copy from one source, it’s called plagiarism; when you copy from many sources, it’s called research.”

And that was that. Worth's case was thrown out of court by Judge Wm Matthew Byrne, Jr. It never even came to trial. In 1987, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, declaring that Trivial Pursuit was “substantially different” from “Super Trivia”. The courts decided that the presentation of facts in an encyclopedia, where entries are listed alphabetically, was very different from the rewriting of those same facts as questions, and their division into categories randomly picked on a Trivial Pursuit card. On March 28, 1988, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Worth's lawyers.

Note that this is very different from simply stealing the questions and doing some minor reformatting or editing, which we consider stealing. Ahem!

Coda: Worth's mistake takes a life of its own

Ironically, Worth's false fact has become one of these things that trivia nerds use to show how much arcana they know. And it goes beyond trivia circles.

Many people insist that, while the name was never used in the show, it was used in a stage version (or pilot episode) called “Prescription: Murder.” Not true.

It seems that even the "Mrs. Columbo" people may have been taken in; although the "Philip phenomenon" doesn't appear on the show, it does appear on Web sites about the show. In fact, “The Cop Cookbook” (a collection of recipes attributed to famous TV detectives, the proceeds from which went to police widows) included Peter Falk’s recipe for pumpkin lasagna, with a note that he played “Philip Columbo.” A Peugeot ad called “Lt Philip Columbo” the world’s most famous Peugeot convertible driver.

The closest we have to an answer is in the 1971 episode "Dead Weight," in which his badge can be seen. Looks to us like the name is "Frank."

Fred Worth, by the way, is still happily employed in the trivia business. He is, for example, one of the writers of "5087 Trivia Questions and Facts." He may not be Trivial-Pursuit rich, but he's still kicking.

More information on this case

Related link: Our copyright policy.