Sorry, Scrabulous Fans, I’m Only Mildly Sympathetic

By  |  Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 9:06 am

Today’s news brings one of the least-startling developments in recent tech history: U.S. and Canadian Facebook users are being denied access to Scrabulous, the extremely popular app that lets people play…well, let’s just say it: It lets them play a thinly-veiled pirated clone of Scrabble. The move was inevitable after Hasbro, which owns the North American rights to Scrabble, licensed Electronic Arts to do an official Scrabble Facebook app and sued the Indian brothers behind Scrabulous. (Facebook is saying that it was Scrabulous’s developers that decided to disable it; for now, the game seems to live on at the Scrabulous site.)

We’ll presumably see a bunch of posts like this one by Don Reisinger on Mashable, siding with Scrabulous fans and the Brothers Agarwalla and caricaturing Hasbro as a company run by clueless geezers who don’t understand the Internet. And it’s tempting for me to join the dogpile-on-the-rabbit. The happiest scenario would have been for Hasbro to acquire or license Scrabulous and legitimize it–or, for that matter, to have rendered it unneccesary before it ever existed by coming out with a Facebook version of Scrabble a long time ago.

But truth to tell, I’m not all that irate at Hasbro, and I’m not all that sad on behalf of Scabulous fans or the Agarwallas. Unless you’re opposed to copyright law, period–or least contend that the Scrabble copyrights and trademarks should have expired already, which I guess is a defensible position, but one at odds with actual law–Hasbro has the right to protect Scrabble. It even has the right to do so in a way that other people believe to be stupid and unreasonable. (I’m a great believer in the idiosyncratic, libertarian notion that laws exist in part to permit people to behave in ways that other folks may believe–correctly, in some cases–to be stupid, unreasonable, and self-defeating.)

If forcing the Agarwallas to shutter the Scrabulous app turns hundreds of thousands of Scrabulous fans into Hasbro haters…well, that’s Hasbro’s call.

As for the Agarwallas, they’re clearly smart, talented guys. Maybe they could have figured out that Facebook-izing Scrabble without Hasbro’s consent might be a bad idea? Is it impudent of me to suggest that they coulda avoided all this by coming up with a compelling online word game that was…original?

(Full disclosure: I’ve played only a couple of games of Scrabble in my life. If this dust-up involved Monobulous or Cluebulous, I’d take this all a little more personally…)


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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Mark Jaquith Says:

    Is it impudent of me to suggest that they coulda avoided all this by coming up with a compelling online word game that was…original?

    No, it isn’t. Hell, if they’d just given it a different name, they might have been okay. And I say that as someone who proposed to his wife during a Scrabble game and who has enjoyed Scrabulous immensely.

  2. Jason Snell Says:

    I agree with you for the most part, Harry. The sad thing is, the “official” Scrabble game by EA on Facebook is overwrought and, in the end, much less appealing than the simple home-brewed version created by the brothers. I assume that Hasbro decided they didn’t want to pay them a cent for their work, but in the end what’s happened is that the brothers have reminded tens of thousands of people about how fun Scrabble is, and yet somehow I suspect that the new official Scrabble will never be able to remotely match the following of Scrabulous. (Also, the fact that the moment Scrabulous was shut down on Facebook, EA took down the “beta” of their Scrabble game… talk about terrible timing.)

    As you say, it’s Hasbro’s decision (and of course the fact that there’s an international split in the licensing rights means that nobody in the U.S. can ever play an official online Scrabble game with a friend in Europe), and if they want to be the bad guys here, that’s up to them.

    It’s a cryin’ shame, though.

  3. Clare Says:

    You’re right – it was Hasbro’s call to not legitimize the Scrabulous app and instead have it shut down, and I think it was the wrong call. I think they made their own case for being the bad guys, which was tough considering I also think they are in the right legally.

    Again- it goes back to why didn’t Hasbro make more of an effort to make Scrabulous theirs? Could they still do so? I hope they can, and I hope other people want them to.

  4. nick botulism Says:

    Rumour has it that Hasbro did try to negotiate with the Scrabulous folks, but they were asking too much– seven figures says the scuttlebutt.

  5. phyllis wishart Says:

    I would like to know why my friends in the uk can still play and why it is not shut down there

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