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?


mike

The issue is indeed trademark.

Yes, holders of IP rights can be dinosaurs when it comes to embracing new technologies.

But from their perspective, trademark law puts them in a difficult situation. If they don't defend their trademarks against unauthorized use, they risk losing the trademarks altogether.

I'm sure whoever owns the names Kleenex and Vaseline don't enjoy coming down on unauthorized uses, but that's the situation they are put in.

Remember Disney and the murals at the Florida day care? Disney came out looking like jerks for sending a "cease and desist" to the daycare, and Hanna Barbera came out looking great for painting new murals at the daycare. But you can bet that Hanna Barbera still put a licence agreement in place with the daycare to use the trademarked characters.

Bottom line - companies can't just ignore trademark violations.

Jason

this is whats wrong with marketing these days. corporations, instead of embracing their newfound popularity, ultimately become their own enemies.

take for instance the terribly unlaughable saturday night live. when adam samberg's chronicles of narnia spoof debuted on snl, no one would have known about it (since no one watches snl anymore), but someone loaded it up on youtube and it became a huge hit. what did nbc do? they forced youtube to take the video down with threats of litigation.

i understand the whole copyright and ownership issue, but these companies time and time again seem so short sighted, and seek not to improve their product, but to merely profit from it.

RT

The first thing I thought when I saw Scrabulous was 'Why haven't these guys been sued?' I hate taking up the cause of a corporation and not to discount the Agarwallas' ingenuity and efforts, but these guys are making $25K a month in significant part because of someone else's intellectual property.

As for Eric Meyer's point that Hasbro should have bought them out - that's probably the most likely outcome, with Scrabulous becoming 'Scrabble on Facebook by EA,' the Agarwallas giving some nominal payment to Hasbro as 'restitution,' and then the brothers being paid to keep running it. That's going to be down the line a bit, if cooler heads prevail.

Jay

Perhaps you should look into the details more closely...the problem is that Hasbro and Mattel offered to buy Scrabulous, even though it is technically violating their intellectual property. Based on the revenue from Scrabulous, it's considered to be worth around $10 million with generous multiples. The two brothers are demanding many times that amount, which is absolutely ridiculous, and that's why Hasbro and Mattel might take this to the courts.

jonathan

You're a day late on this story.

The owners of the actual game have been trying to buy Scrabulous, the illegal copycat. The guys above are said to be asking for tens of millions of dollars. Now, you might salute them for putting the game out there because, as they've been quoted, they just wanted to play Scrabble, but tens of millions of dollars?! Sounds more like typical greed, this time by latching on to a popular game, usurping legal rights and then trying to profit by blackmail.

Bill

If I copied Freakonomics and put it online for free ....

"why wouldn't the authors of Freaknonmics find a way to capitalize on the craze in a way that doesn't enrage new fans of the book?"

citizen jason

Seriously, a folding edition of the Deluxe Board? Doesn't the standard edition fold already? Genius! I wonder how many MBAs they have working on that? I was just at the store the other day laughing at a "Pirates of the Carribean" Scrabble edition. (Surely most Scrabble players have been longing for a picture of Captain Jack Sparrow on their board ... and no other real difference.)

Given that the Internet has been around for over a decade now, I'm still amazed at how many companies apparently have no clue whatsoever about what to do with it. Maybe Hasbro has been taking advice from the RIAA ...

AJ

I know, personally, that Scrabulous has rekindled my interest in Scrabble and I've played the board game a few times since I started using Scrabulous on facebook. Never would have thought of it otherwise. And I know that my friends who I played the boardgame with had to buy the boardgame since they didn't own one before we decided to play.

Also, I recommend this site for blatant cheating:
http://www.scrabblesolver.co.uk/

Eric Meyer

Frankly, Hasbro should have bought Scrabulous and hired them, and immediately put them to work improving Scrabulous and repeating that success with other Hasbro properties.

Speaking here as a non-Scrabulous, barely-on-Facebook individual, by the way.

Ishmael Noone

cheating? at Scrabble? you might as well be working on wall street or for some mortgage company! or be a politician or just be running for president.

the guillotine awaits!

mike seller

Apparently your knowledge of economics and marketing is limited. Of course, they are upset as they realize that their board game is going to become obsolete (if it is not already) and that they have joined the bandwagon too late. They also realize that in the technology market arena the first to market (if done well) is the most successful and usually stays that way.

Thomas Brownback

Charlie Brooker had some interesting things to say (as usual) about the ubiquity of cheating online:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/aug/06/comment.comment

Of course, "cheating" has really been part of Scrabble all along. According to the tournament rules, when a blank is played, the obligation is upon the opponent to verify that the tile is actually blank (and not just a face down Q). They may freely examine a tile after it is played, but if they fail to challenge the round it is played, they lose the right to complain.

Grant

I did an internship over last summer with the US Copyright Office, searching through old records as part of a Library of Congress project to dig up hidden stuff that had been forgotten in old collections. We found several board games, which were indeed copyrighted (ca. 1900, anyway).

And my supervisor made reference to the original copyright for Monopoly, which they used in an exhibit about the history of the Copyright Office a few years back.

As to whether the copyright on Scrabble is still valid, I dunno. But you can copyright board games, and I'm guessing the name "Scrabble" is a trademark as well (that goes through the Patent Office, I believe).

Andy

The copyright is on the *game board* itself (i.e., the design of the board). I haven't tried Scrabulous, but I imagine its game board is similar enough to give a copyright suit a good chance of success. It's probably not guaranteed, which is why they offered to buy it from the creators.

But I see nothing wrong with them suing to protect their rights. Why shouldn't Hasbro get the money that the creators of Scrabulous are getting? What makes them more deserving?

coquimbo

Again, there's not much intellectual property involved seeing that any copyright claims will be very weak, since you can't copyright anything abstract (Game rules for example). Has a board game ever been successfully copyrighted?

Kory

Read the book, "Work Freak". The book is about the author's quest to become a professional Scrabble player. Along with his own story, the author describes the beginnings of Scrabble and its multiple owners. If I remember correctly the inventor never got much in the way of royalties and this was way before Hasbro was involved. Also it gives clear indication that Hasbro doesn't care much about its "Crown Jewel's" players (or at least its professional players).

Hasbro also owns a game called "Magic: The Gathering" It's serious players also complain about how Hasbro doesn't support the game's fans.

Hasbro supports its stockholders, It's customers? Not so much.

For what it's worth. After buying "Word Freak", I bought a Scrabble dictionary and a travel scrabble game, and a computer version of the game.

Mike

"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."

Which is why those guys make $25,000 a month.

You want everything to be free but I bet you want a raise don't you?

Steve Fox

My favorite is http://scrabblecheat.com as it supports multiple blank tiles. Great for crossword solving as well with binding positions.

Scrabble cheat board

Scrabulous is very popular on facebook. It’s nice to see that someone earn so much that it could be beyond imagination. But Scrabble-branded cheat sites is much better from my point of view. So it’s up to us that what we choose for playing the board games.