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.’

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Tim

Given the fact that Scrabulous was established, and with likely zero maintenance costs certainly profitable, one would think Hasbro would try to come to some kind of profit sharing deal with the developers.

Essentially, offer the brothers some reasonable figure for development and maintenance. The arrangement would essentially be as if Hasbro had contracted them to make the game in the first place. Righting what is clearly a wrong.

ego

Are you serious? Scrabulous? This is the issue?

Peter Roizen

Why not just play a better game? Scrabble's reliance on stupid short words of no use in conversation is a fatal flaw.

Take a look at WildWords at http://www.wildwords.us

There is an Internet and board version, and the game will be available across the social networks (including Facebook) by October 1.

Sixty years of Scrabble is enough. It's time for a word game that's won with an adult vocabulary and creative thinking.

George Dovel

Dan Macsai is absolutely correct. (A) Property is property, whether it is intellectual or physical. (B) The theft of property is theft.

In any civilization that aspires to call itself such, these simple truths should carry more weight than all the mewling about "this makes me happy, and Hasbro is a big meanie for taking it away from me."

Intellectual property is easier to steal than physical property, but that doesn't make the theft of it any less illegal. And people who have no ethical qualms about stealing intellectual property (or benefiting from someone else's theft of it) might just evolve a new perspective on this issue if someone were to figure out how to steal or profit from their hard-earned assets.

Count Meout

It is utter nonsense to accuse the Agarwalla brothers of intellectual property theft, and clearly smacks of double standards. Consider what Microsoft did with Spreadsheet against Lotus or with Internet Explorer against Netscape. Get real, Hasbro, which is still living in "good old times."

Given the cash might of Hasbro, it can easily take the Agarwalla brothers down if it comes down to a legal battle, unless a white knight comes along. But then, considering the Internet Explorer case of Microsoft, there's a precedent that could help Scrabulous.

Ash [yakshaving.net]

Dan and George, great, scholarly analysis from an attorney's perspective. And let's completely ignore the "Hasbro is a big meanie for taking it away from me" argument.

But let's look at it critically from the Hasbro business perspective. Do you honestly think they calculated the risk of brand devaluation and customer attrition due to suing two Scrabble fans--in fact superfans who spent the time to mimic the Scrabble game?

Why wouldn't they just offer to purchase Scrabulous at a fair price, and continue to grow, add improvements, and plan to monetize it for the longer term? In an era of transparency and keeping customers happy, it just seems like a foolish decision to me.

Of course, IANAL, so I might be thinking about this from a different perspective. I'm willing to consider a refutation.

Jamie

I don't have any doubt that the Agarwalla brothers stole the Scrabble concept, but they adapted it to the Internet. EA seems to have "borrowed" a few ideas from Scrabulous on how to set the game up. Might be a counterclaim there.

As a player, I'm upset, because Canada is now arbitrarily lumped in with the States and not the Commonwealth. The Hasbro version uses an American dictionary not in official use in Canada, and I can't play against those bright ladies in Australia who had been whupping me regularly.

Perhaps Mattel and Hasbro could work something out.

timinh

Ash:
Ooooo! "Refutation." How many points is that worth?

Alex Lee

Straight from the U.S. Copyright Office
http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl108.html

"The idea for a game is not protected by copyright. The same is true of the name or title given to the game and of the method or methods for playing it."

"Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author's expression in literary, artistic, or musical form. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in the development, merchandising, or playing of a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles."

Yellowbird5411

Being a Scrabulous junkie and wasting more of my day with it than I will admit to, I am still waiting for the online version of the 80-proof "Upwords" for a new, improved hangover.

david

I'm sure Hasbro reps would be flying to India to right what has been wronged. It all comes down to that Hasbro has no clue how to utilize the Internet to revive and promote scrabble, and the Agarwalla brothers do. These guys just created a nice job, and just got roles as head of Hasbro's online division. Both parties win.

Theft is theft, but the world prefers to steal these times. Everyone prefers the convenience of downloading. Until industry catches us, the world refuses to slow down.

Mark Amtower

I side with the "this is stealing" side. Too often people think intellectual property rights, copyrights, etc., are passé, and they are not.

Further proof? In the Aug. 18 BusinessWeek (page 80), Louis Lavelle is reviewing Ahead of the Curve--about Harvard grad school (MBA), where 75% of an MBA class sided with a group of students who hacked into the Harvard site that stored admissions information, saying that what they did was okay.

It is neither okay nor--as you'll find if you follow this path the way some do and end up in court--legally defensible.

Not that I have an opinion.

David D.

Hasbro's management has successfully secured a place in public relations and marketing courses for decades to come--as one of the great bunglers in the transition from 20th- to 21st-century business models. Until I got hooked on Scrabulous, I'd forgotten what Scrabble was. Since then, I have bought two high-end official versions of the game. S-T-U-P-I-D.

Sharon H.

Alex, the board design itself is copyrightable, and always has been. The name "Scrabble" is not a copyright, but a trademark, also protected but under different law. Yes, the Agarwalla brothers violated copyright.

But Hasbro has had a history of not listening to the players when it comes to making its product, and they have certainly stayed that course in this instance. Players have made it clear with Scrabulous that they want a game that looks clean and plays fast. Hasbro insists on adding cutesy flourishes, hoping we will say, "Wow, Hasbro" instead of what we have always been saying, "Great game."

memyselfandi

Well, copyrights were supposed to be for 50 years to protect creativity. Then someone ruled corporations were persons. Now there is no end to copyrights. A real person supposedly (if you believe the DVD you buy) can't copy what they purchased or lend it to a friend.

Corporations don't own us.

Clare

Years ago Hasbro had an e-mail version of Scrabble. I paid good money for the software, and it was good. Then it just died or something, even while they were still selling the software. I think it would be great public relations if Hasbro just left Scrabulous alone or maybe even paid the brothers for their efforts.

V.

"$25,000 a month"? I'm sure Hasbro spends more on executive lunches. Was that really worth losing free advertising for the game and upsetting your own potential customers?

If Hasbro wasn't acting like an arrogant elephant in the china shop, I'm sure they could have worked out a deal. Maybe brand the game with their name and let it be?

The sad part is that two guys in India can make a better game than an entire division of Electronic Arts.

Alex

Hasbro has shown very bad judgment. They made lots of enemies while they could, and should, have made a deal with the Indian designers of Scrabulous.

Scrabulous is great, while I'd never play Hasbro's no-fun version.

Rhonda

The new Scrabulous version Wordscraper is far superior to the horrid game Hasbro is trying to put up, and is a much more fun and improved version of the great Scrabulous. As one friend said, if Scrabulous was a kind of foreplay, Word scraper is full-on sex.

Michael

What the Agarwalla brothers did may be illegal. Can you blame them for starting Scrabulous, just because Hasbro didn't move with the times, and needed two young Indian boys to show them how to leverage the equity of one of their greatest brands? Legal or not, I'm all for teaching dud companies a lesson or two on creativity and marketing.

Missy

That was an extreme waste of an article.

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