Scrabulous, Facebook, Hasbro: A Bad Breakup
Hasbro should have just let the beloved, Scrabble-like online game remain on Facebook. Pro or con?
Pro: Poor Public Relations
Word games are fun. Word games that let you play with anyone, anywhere—instantly or over e-mail—are even more fun. Playing word games with friends while catching up and swapping pictures and stories is even more fun still. But taking a game away from users to settle legal disputes is no fun at all.
Hasbro (HAS) has perfectly legitimate concerns about Scrabulous. Facebook, which didn’t want to be ensnared in lawsuits, complied with Hasbro’s request to pull the game from its site. But both companies need to think about public relations.
When you take away something people like, they tend to get angry even if substitutes are available. Do you really want to be a company filed under “Buzzkill” in a user’s mind? Having to use substitutes to replicate a favorite experience always makes users angry.
The creators of Scrabulous have already changed the game into Wordscraper, which may be distinct enough from Scrabble to be immune from legal repercussions. When the litigation is over, the only outcome from all this fuss and bother may be angry users wondering what Hasbro and Facebook will take away from them next. Rather than yank Scrabulous in a knee-jerk reaction, they should’ve thought about their customers, first and foremost.
Con: Stolen Is Stolen
I’m all for fun and games—especially on Facebook—but Scrabulous had to scram.
Last month, Hasbro, which owns the rights to Scrabble, filed a lawsuit against Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the brothers behind Scrabulous. According to legal documents, the popular online game was “confusingly similar” to its material predecessor: The letter tiles bore the same point values, the game boards were identical, and the names (Scrabble and Scrabulous) were essentially homophones.
Within hours, loyal Scrabulous users attacked these claims, denouncing Hasbro for being a glorified party pooper. Some started petitions. Others joined melodramatic Facebook groups (i.e., “Please, God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous, Too”). A few of my fanatical college buddies even called the controversy “fascist” and “unfair.”
On some level, I can sympathize. After all, the Agarwallas did what Hasbro couldn’t: They revitalized a dated board game, turning triple-letter scores and bingos into Web 2.0 phenomena (and helping more than 700,000 people waste time at work). Moreover, as Scrabulous gained positive brand equity, Scrabble sales allegedly spiked.
But success doesn’t justify malpractice. The Agarwallas stole a trademarked concept, made it Facebook-friendly, and netted roughly $25,000 a month in ad revenues.
I’m pretty sure there’s a seven-letter word for that: ‘illegal.’