Scrabulous on the Facebook platform (they actually created the game in 2006, but it didn't really take off until it was introduced to the Facebook audience). Being rather familiar with the various incarnations of Scrabble online, I am confident in my opinion that Scrabulous is by far the best.I admit an unhealthy addiction to Scrabble. I have been playing almost daily for many years. I think my girlfriend and I own 5 or 6 different versions of the game between the two of us. That's why I was so excited last year when brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla launched
But in the back of my mind I knew it wouldn't last. The name is too close to Hasbro's trademark. The rules, tile distribution, the game board -- all the things that make it superior in every way to Yahoo!'s Literati -- all infringe on Hasbro's copyrights. And so, this past week has not been a very good one in Scrabulous land.
On Friday, Fortune's Josh Quittner broke the story that Hasbro had sent the Agarwalla brothers a cease and desist letter. According to Jayant Agarwalla, Facebook was sent a take down request two weeks ago. As of this morning, Scrabulous -- where I am currently engaged in 5 matches -- is still online.
It's easy to see why Scrabulous caught Hasbro's attention. According to Facebook measurement firm Adonomics, it is currently the 9th most popular app on the site by active users, with over 600,000 today. It generates 70 million pageviews per month and pulls in "over $25,000 a month."
Fans of the application have taken Quittner's advice to "please start a Facebook group to save Scrabulous" to heart, and the Save Scrabulous group this morning has about 3,000 members. Users have organized email campaigns aimed at Hasbro headquarters, and the BBC News has even taken notice, with a reporter posting a call for Londoners willing to be interviewed live on BBC News 24.
Hasbro has also gone after Bogglific, which is a Facebook incarnation of its Boggle word game. "Hasbro, Inc. has sent a DMCA notification notice to Facebook regarding Bogglific. They claim it violates their trademark, and violates copyright over the Boggle rules," wrote developer Roger Nesbitt in an open letter to users this morning. "I'm no lawyer, and can't see how it violates copyright. But I have neither the time nor the money to fight this, and Facebook has given me a grace period of 48 hours to shut the application down voluntarily."
It would be interesting to see if Hasbro has experienced any sort of sales bump since the explosion of these games on Facebook. A number of users posting to the "Save Scrabulous" group have said that they became hooked on the game via Facebook and have since purchased copies of the board game (and the same anecdotal evidence appears on the message board of a group trying to save Bogglific). It seems a safe bet that apps like Scrabulous and Bogglific have exposed these traditional board games to a new audience. It is easy to draw parallels to the RIAA here.
"Anything promoting Scrabble to a younger audience is a good thing," said Stewart Holden, the publicity officer for the Association of British Scrabble Players, which has operated under a licensing agreement with Mattel (who licenses the product internationally) since 1987. "While we recognize the legal ownership of the Scrabble trademark by Hasbro and Mattel, the impact of the Facebook Scrabulous application has been enormous and it would be a shame if no agreement could be reached which enabled this huge publicity boost for the game to continue."
The Aragwalla's are reportedly trying to work out a licensing deal with Hasbro.
A form letter sent by Hasbro Senior Manager of Consumer Affairs Kriss De Nardo to Scrabulous fans who have emailed the Rhode Island-based company seems to indicate that the company is open to licensing the use of the Scrabble intellectual property. "SCRABBLE has been entertaining millions of people around the world for 60 years so we are not surprised that fans have thoroughly enjoyed playing Scrabulous on Facebook.com," De Nardo wrote in the letter. "What consumers may not realize, however, is that Scrabulous is an illegally copied online version of the worlds most popular word game, the copyrights and trademarks for which are owned by Hasbro in the U.S. and Canada and Mattel in the rest of the world. We encourage fans to continue to lay down online tiles at sites that have legally licensed the interactive rights to host SCRABBLE fun."
However, licensing attempts could possibly be stymied in the case of Scrabble, because the online rights for the game currently belong to computer game company Electronic Arts.
It would seem that Hasbro has three options: force a take down of the infringing apps, work out a licensing agreement with them, buy them. As Josh Quittner suggests:
"If I were an evil genius running a board games company whose product line spanned everything from Monopoly to Clue, I might do this: Wait until someone comes up with an excellent implementation of my games and does the hard work of coding and debugging the thing and signing up the masses. Then, once it got to scale, Id sweep in and take it over. Let the best pirate site win! If I were compassionate, Id even cut in the guys who did all the work for a percentage point or two to keep the site running."
Are you listening Hasbro?