Scrabulous Sued, Facebook on Notice

After months of speculation, board game maker Hasbro has sued the creators of Scrabulous, an online game that the company claims copies its game Scrabble, and has asked Facebook to remove the game from its site.

The lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in federal court in New York, claims that the game's creators, brothers Rajat Agarwalla and Jayant Agarwalla, violated Hasbro's intellectual property rights by creating the online game Scrabulous. The game lives on Facebook.com, where it's one of the social network's most popular applications.

"We expect the full cooperation of Facebook in this matter," Hasbro said in a statement.

In a statement issued late Thursday, Facebook said it hoped the suit wouldn't discourage other developers from creating applications for the social network.

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"Over the past year, Facebook has tried to use its status as neutral platform provider to help the parties come to an amicable agreement," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "We're disappointed that Hasbro has sought to draw us into their dispute; nevertheless, we have forwarded their concerns to Scrabulous and requested their appropriate response."

The statement did not address whether Scrabulous will continue to be available on Facebook. As of Friday morning, the application remained active.

The Agarwalla brothers did not respond to e-mailed questions on the matter.

Scrabulous is played much the same way as Scrabble and is among the top 10 most downloaded applications on Facebook, which has more than 90 million active users. It can also be played online at the brothers' Web site, Scrabulous.com.

Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in the United States and Canada. Last year, the company struck a deal with video game maker Electronic Arts to develop digital versions of classic board games.

That deal came to fruition in the past few weeks, as Hasbro launched an online version of the official Scrabble, also downloadable on Facebook.

Hasbro had been mum on what legal action, if any, it would take -- until now.

"In deference to the fans, we waited in pursuing legal action until EA had a legitimate and better alternative available," Hasbro said in a statement.

Fans Concerned About Shutdown

When rumors of legal action first circulated in January, however, those fans that Hasbro is trying to woo were livid over a potential Scrabulous shutdown. Within hours of the news, hardcore fans registered their disapproval.

Several groups formed on Facebook, with tens of thousands of members joining to rescue the favored application from its demise. Nearly all the groups had some variation of the phrase "Save Scrabulous" in their names.

Jason Madhosingh, a 30-year-old New Yorker who works in marketing, is the leader of one of the biggest "Save Scrabulous" Facebook groups.

At the time, Madhosingh said he was happy with the support Scrabulous is getting.

"We're excited that we have this many people who are supportive," he said. "I can certainly understand the position of the creators of [Scrabble]. But we have a group of 14,000 people who are really passionate about this brand. It's a good opportunity for the makers of this brand to engage with us instead of pushing us away."

Despite Scrabulous' popularity on Facebook, Madhosingh was quick to separate the two.

"Ultimately, it's something that enhances the experience. It's not the primary [reason] I use Facebook," he said.

Some Scrabulous fans contend that Scrabulous brought a whole new audience to Scrabble.

"I think people who ordinarily wouldn't play Scrabble might play Scrabulous games," said Scrabulous fan Jessie Strauss, 27. "They would think, 'Oh this is fun — maybe we should play.' I think Scrabble is sort of hot right now and it's all because of Scrabulous."

Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, a group that caters to the video game industry professionals and enthusiasts, believes that traditional game companies such as Hasbro should work with developers as a way of finding a new audience.

"I think the brightest thing for more traditional companies is to work with these sorts of companies [like Scrabulous]," Halpin said. "Young fans play on a platform they're accustomed to, and it's something that they can share with friends. Companies could be able to theoretically convert brand-new customers, and people who might even go out and buy the board game who have played it on Facebook."

Scrabulous Has Worldwide Impact

Hasbro isn't the first company to bring a licensed Scrabble application to Facebook. In April, RealNetworks, an Internet software provider, launched Scrabble by Mattel on the social networking site. The application allows Facebook members outside the U.S. and Canada — or those who say they live outside the two countries — to play the real Scrabble.

Last year, RealNetworks struck a deal with Mattel, which owns the copyright to Scrabble internationally, to develop online casual games based on several Mattel board games, including Scrabble.

"We've been working with Mattel for a couple of months," RealNetworks spokesman Ryan Luckin said in April. "We do have a similar deal with Hasbro with online rights for Scrabble, so we'll continue to work with them as one of our partners."

Luckin said that RealNetworks is still in talks with the Agarwalla brothers; he declined to reveal details of those discussions.

"At the end of the day no matter what game is out there with a Scrabble trademark on it, it has to be approved by Mattel and Hasbro," he said. "So no matter what happens we want to work with them ... and also make this work for the Scrabulous guys as well."

Future Trouble for Facebook?

The situation calls into question a host of potential legal landmines for Facebook, which allows programmers to develop and upload all sorts of applications to the social networking site.

"The big issue here is what this implies for Facebook," said Tom Hemnes, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in copyright and trademark law. "If I were betting on this, if the case came to litigation or settlement, [I would bet] that Facebook would lose. They are indirectly associated with the name Scrabble to attract viewers to their site, and that would be trademark infringement."