Thursday, April 10, 2008

The War on Scrabulous

When I first played Scrabulous on Facebook I was, pardon the pun, puzzled. How could they mimic the game of Scrabble so exactly and not get sued? Well, it turns out that the name Scrabble is trademarked, but the board, tile scores, and rules aren't even copyrighted. And What is copyrighted is held by Hasbro and Mattel, for American and international rights, respectively. It's a bit of a conundrum, isn't it? (How I'd love to spell conundrum across 2 triple word scores).

The game we love to play on Facebook was written by two brothers in their 20's from Calcutta, Rajat and Sayant Agarwalla. According to this article on Forbes, not only does Scrabulous haul in $25,000 a month in ad-generated revenue, but the game itself- the rules and designs- aren't protected specifically under copyright. They're fighting out the details in court.

From Forbes:

Although all parties are reportedly in settlement discussions to avoid a lawsuit, this dispute raises the very interesting question of whether the 60-year-old word game is actually protected by copyright and trademark law, as Scrabble's corporate rights holders allege.

Is Scrabulous a virtual "knock-off" of Scrabble? Yes. But does Scrabulous unlawfully infringe any of the intellectual property rights of Hasbro or Mattel? That answer is far from clear. This is so because neither copyright nor trademark law protect the essence of the ideas and concepts that are embodied in the game of Scrabble.

Most of us are familiar with Scrabble's 15-by-15 grid and the basic rules of the game: Players each randomly select seven lettered tiles from a pool of a hundred, each indicating a point score of one to 10, depending on the letter. Players then take turns arranging their tiles into words on the grid, and keep score based upon the sum of the point values of the letters and on whether any tiles landed on various double and triple letter and word bonus squares on the grid. While all of these basic rules of Scrabble are essential to the game, they are not directly protected by copyright or trademark law.

Now that's just amazing. RealNetworks, the "buffering..." people who started the whole "our useless app will take over all your media" craze among internet streaming media vendors, has a version of Scrabble on facebook that can only be played by non-U.S. members. From the comments, it's kludgy, slow and inferior to Scrabulous. They must have used coders from Elbonia. On the other hand, Scrabulous works pretty well through facebook; the website was kind of lame and lost games when I tried it a few months ago, but may have improved.

What's most surprising is that it took until 2005 for someone to make a web version of Scrabble. You'd think Mattel and Hasbro would have been on it. $25,000 a month isn't chump change, and I bet a site with better name recognition and good coding would haul in quite a bit more. If you go to you're immediately shunted to a different website once you indicate your nationality, and you can't play the game on either. Hopefully the Agarwalla brothers will be able to keep their game going, under a different name or by paying royalties. But in the lawsuit game, more often to the sore loser go the spoils. And by that I mean Mattel/Hasbro are losers for waiting until someone else made money on it, to come up with a web version of a 60 year old game.

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