The Scrabble Rabble

In January, Hasbro, the North American distributor of Scrabble, announced plans to sue Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the creators of Facebook‘s most popular application: Scrabulous. With 700,000 daily users, Scrabulous makes the Agarwalla brothers $25,000 a month in advertising revenue, the Times reported Sunday.

Scrambling for a piece of the market share, Hasbro has reportedly signed deals with gaming companies RealNetworks and Electronic Arts to create an online version of Scrabble. But the Facebook copycat version has already garnered three million fans, who have downloaded the application alongside Oregon Trail, Zombies, and SuperPoke, and they are unlikely to switch. In fact, many are beginning to revolt.

With a vague threat that Scrabulous may be taken from them any day now, zealots have created anti-Hasbro groups like “Save Scrabulous” and “Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous, Too,” whose members threaten to never buy a Scrabble board again if Hasbro proceeds against the Agarwalla brothers. Whether these users would have bought a board in the first place is questionable, but the application has done nothing but strengthen Scrabble interest among a younger demographic. Shouldn’t Hasbro and Mattel (who distributes the game outside North America) be celebrating the success of Scrabulous? From the Times piece:

“For their part, Mattel and Hasbro are trying to protect their franchise as consumers turn increasingly to the Internet for entertainment. They say they consider Scrabble a crown jewel and are working on marketing campaigns for the game’s 60th anniversary this year. The plans include adding anniversary labels to Scrabble packaging and introducing a folding edition of the deluxe Scrabble board.”

Anniversary labels and a folding-edition of the deluxe board! Wow. Office drones everywhere will surely take notice.

Instead of snuffing out Scrabulous and taking on a great deal of ill-will from the online community, why doesn’t Hasbro find a way to capitalize on the craze in a way that doesn’t enrage new fans of the game?

Hasbro might want to invest in sites that Scrabulous players visit most often while playing the game. One difference between the Facebook application and real-life Scrabble is the rampant cheating that goes on. I know some people, for instance [ahem], who visit this site and this site quite a bit while playing online. Improving Scrabble-branded cheat sites may be the best money-making strategy of all. There’s currently no advertising on the Hasbro site. Can someone tell me, though, why there’s a photo of a woman and a baby? They make family games, I get it, but a baby?


Van B.

re: The woman and the baby

First, what picture do you expect? My mother falling asleep during the game while my brother sneaks peeks at his Scrabble? dictionary as I get 30 bonus points for dirty words (house rule) and my sister sneaks extra tiles?

Second, look at the word on the picture...I'm reasonably certain, based on that word, that the baby is about to be circumcised. Also, when spelled backwards, it reveals another cute baby word.

Christian

"Information wants to be free."

Spoken like someone who has absolutely no intellectual property rights.

There's probably minimal growth in the board games industry, so how can we reasonably fault the owners of the Scrabble concept to try to make money in the online space?

Same as always, the biggest whiners are the ones with a massive sense of entitlement.

Peter Roizen

Frankly, I think Scrabble is an emperor with few clothes standing on a house of secret code cards shrouded in a fog of folklore.

Would love to put this up at Facebook if I knew how:

http://www.wildwords.us

Mango

I really wonder about the board, actually. How much artistic material is there in its design?

One way to look at that is to ask what would a board look like if you were asked to draw one, having never before seen a Scrabble board, but possessing instructions on how it is supposed to work?

Even the jagged edges around the bonus squares aren't artistic, those are functional because they allow you to see what kind of square it is even when there's a tile on it (the patent for the jagged edges expired long ago).

The only claim I can see would be the specific colors of the bonus squares. An independent design would probably assign different colors than the original one did. Anything else?

Raina

And it looks like they had a similar copyright issue with Bogglific because they've changed the name to Prolific and changed the icon to circumvent the issue.

Raina

From the corner of a Scrabulous addict -

The scrabulous board is the exact same as the Scrabble board, and the point system is the same as well, so I could see that Hasbro could have a claim there. But given its popularity on Facebook, Hasbro would be insane to shut it down. So it's nice to know that they're trying to take it over and cash in, rather than just stomping on it.

As far as cheating is concerned, they actually give you a scrabble dictionary to use on the site and give free access to it during the game. But you have to know what words to type in, so it's not quite as bad as using the sites listed above.

Thomas

Scrabble was invented in 1938 or somesuch, seventy years ago. It's about time that it falls out of copyright because it became part of common culture a long time back. Hasbro, or whoever owns the rights has had enough time to recover their investment in marketing and make a pretty sum of money.

Jesse Farmer

Small correction: Scrabulous is not the most popular application on Facebook. Depending on what metric you use it's at best the 6th most popular.

See http://adonomics.com/leaderboard.php?order=active_users

Mango

I haven't heard a real legal opinion on the matter, but it seems like the only case Hasbro would have against Scrabulous would rely on:
1) the board looking too similar to the original board, and
2) the name 'Scrabulous'

Point 1 could plausibly constitute both trademark and copyright infringement. Point 2 is clearly trademark infringement.

There is no patent infringement because the patent for Scrabble expired more than 30 years ago.

What's interesting is that these are not hard to get around for the Scrabulous guys. If they just change the name and use some original art on the board graphic, then they should be free and clear. Hasbro's case is quite weak.

Copyright infringement for the text describing the rules of the game is not likely to stick, unless it's a word for word copy. Because they are functional instructions, and not a literary work; by comparison, you cannot copyright a recipe. Game instructions are very similar to a recipe.

Likewise, the board design isn't subject to a copyright. Only if it is artistically similar to the original board would there be a problem; changing the colours of the bonus squares might be enough to remove any infringement.

Read more...

bigyaz

It's not just copyright that's at issue. There are also trademarks, patents, etc.

Peter

I'm puzzled by #25.

I went to the linked cite and read this:

"Some material prepared in connection with a game may be subject to copyright if it contains a sufficient amount of literary or pictorial expression. For example, the text matter describing the rules of the game, or the pictorial matter appearing on the gameboard or container, may be registrable."

It would seem that some aspects of a "game" are indeed protectable intellectual property.

Susan

I love Scrabble Helper: http://www.wineverygame.com/

y

I have received at least 2 free 'official' scrabble CD-ROM games over the last 15 years in cereal box promotions. I'm pretty sure I could have bought them in $5 shovel ware bins which probably represent very close to 0 dollars to Hasbro.

On the other hand, since we became scrabulus addicted we have bought both a travel game and a dictionary.

joe

yep, i'm w/ mike on this one. well put. these guys copied an entire trademarked game and didn't bother to even try to ask permission. hasbro is just protecting their brand, which they have a right to do. this has nothing to do with the fact that hasbro is acting like my grandpa when it comes to the "computer age" or not embracing some guys that copied their product.

oddTodd

Grant #20:

Was this the copyright office you were working for?
http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html
The same one that has a whole page dedicated to the fact that you can't copyright games, the idea behind the game, the system or rules for the game or the names of games?

Rick

Yet another data point suggesting that in the information age, you make money on ideas. With the ubiquity of digital tools which allow for copying and sharing of content, anything that can be digitized has little value as as a per unit product. If you want to make more money, add some new value to the world. The ability to reproduce an object and control it's distribution is no longer a time, space, and effort based endeavor justifying its cost.

Wang

Big business slacking on the move of a seemingly standard physcial product into the digital world so some kids beat them to the punch? Reminds me of another industry...

josh r

I have played scrabble knockoffs many times over the last 10 or 15 years. Scrabble has been around for a very long time. Information wants to be free.

Twist

I started to write something else but this actually reminds me of immigration. It is illegal but the perpetrators try to claim some kind of moral right.

Now if this company had created a parody of Scrabble with odd words, would that be protected under the Parody Law like movies are?

oddTodd

Hmm... careful with that "intellectual property" claim. Games can't be copyrighted. Any patent would have expired long ago. The only thing the brothers did wrong is give it a name that sounds like Scrabble. New name, no more problem.