Thursday, January 17, 2008

Scrabulous Scuffle leaves players at a loss for words

Game players love it. Hasbro hates it. And now, it’s in a war that makes the battles in Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak look like child’s play.

It’s Scrabulous, the web and Facebook phenomenon that borrows more than a little from Scrabble, the world’s best-selling board game. How similar are the two? Just a glance at a Scrabulous board (see above, and note the trouncing I’m taking from Martha and Rebecca) tells the story. And now it’s gotten serious enough for the lawyers to be involved, as Reuters reports:

Game companies Hasbro, which distributes Scrabble in North America, and Mattel, which is responsible for its overseas trademarks, have reportedly asked Facebook to remove the game from its application directory.

One interesting note that says something about the power of social networks: Scrabulous was living a pretty great life out on the web (where I first discovered it), but Hasbro didn’t seem to care until it become all the rage with the kids on Facebook. All’s fair, apparently, until someone pokes your brand in the wrong place.

The Scrabble Scuffle has also started an interesting online debate about whether Hasbro would be better served to collaborate with the makers of Scrabulous or fight it out in court. In a comment to his post on Tuesday, Scott at Collective Wisdom argued that “Hasbro can be the hero by buying Scrabulous and mak[ing] money, or wast[ing] a bunch of cash on lawyers.” Others, however, think that Scrabulous is not exactly being above board by encroaching on Hasbro’s intellectual property rights in particular and the rules of fair play in general.

As both a rabid Scrabble fan and a Scrabulous junkie, I’m caught in the middle (along with everyone else in Facebook forums like "Save Scrabulous!" and "If Hasbro Kills Scrabulous, I Will Die!"). I definitely see where Hasbro’s getting screwed, but I applaud Scrabulous for giving players a free online option that doesn’t suck (unlike Yahoo’s lame Literati). And it gets even more complicated when you consider that Scrabulous is making serious money off their version, which Hasbro probably could have done if it invested in innovation instead of legal fees.

The whole thing reminds me of the music industry and Napster. Sure, artists should get paid for their work, but you gotta love a system that gives you exactly what you want at no cost. My guess is that we’ll see a similar result here, with Scrabulous going the way of Napster (blown up only to be resurrected as something about 5% as good), Hasbro going the way of the music industry (enjoying a short-term win while still contemplating long-term irrelevance), and players going the way of music fans (using Lime Wire to get around the system until we feel guilty enough to buy a couple of songs on iTunes).

In the end, the whole thing is likely to leave Scrabulous players at a loss for words. After all, disputes like this having a happy ending are as rare a triple word-score bingo.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Interesting post on an issue sure to be with us for awhile.

At this point in time, Hasbro would seem best served to try to "be the hero," and co-opt or otherwise work with Scrabulous to serve what seems like a growing and devoted audience.

Still, in a larger sense, I don't agree with the idea that Hasbro is kind of getting what they deserve for not devising an online version of Scrabble before Scrabulous came along. Scrabble is their property and they have the right and obligation to defend it -- whether they did so the day Scrabulous first appeared or after it took off on Facebook doesn't really matter. The choice shouldn't have to be "innovate or have your property stolen."

It's one thing to be left behind by a competitor with a better idea -- all companies face that risk if they don't look forward. But that is not the same as having your concept taken without consent. Scrabulous seems to make no pretense about what its game is and who it is targeting -- Scrabble and Scrabble players, respectively. If they're making money at that, Hasbro can't just sit by and do nothing.