Scrabble Offensive Launched on Facebook

First, members of Facebook fell in love with Scrabulous, an unauthorized, near-identical online copycat of the board game Scrabble; legal issues ensued.

Now, one license-owning company has released an officially sanctioned online version of the game, as the rallying cries of "Save Scrabulous" still sound across Facebook.

In recent weeks, RealNetworks, an Internet software provider, launched Scrabble by Mattel on Facebook as a competitor to Scrabulous, one of the social network's popular applications.

The newest game allows Facebook members outside the United States and Canada — or those who say they live outside the United States and Canada — to play the real Scrabble.

The Scrabulous fracas began in January, when Hasbro — which owns the copyright to the game in the United States and Canada — tried to get the online copycat yanked off line. Scrabulous, which is played much the same way as Scrabble, was developed by brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla in Calcutta, India. The game is among the top 10 most downloaded applications on Facebook and can also be played online at the brothers' Web site.

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. "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."

Although the new official application could be construed as a Scrabulous replacement, 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.

RealNetworks, according to Luckin, is not involved with the legal issues that Hasbro and Mattel are currently taking on.

"Scrabulous infringes on Hasbro's trademark," Hasbro spokesman Gary Serba told in a statement in January. "Like all intellectual property owners, we take this type of infringement seriously. We are reviewing a number of options with the parties involved and hope to find an amicable solution. If we cannot come to one quickly, we will be forced to close down the site and its associated distribution points."

Serba refused to comment on reports that Hasbro sent out legal notices to four parties involved in developing and hosting the game. He said he could not say anything more than what was in the official statement.

The Agarwalla brothers also declined to comment.

As of now, both the brothers' site and the Scrabulous application are still available.

As Hasbro fought to shut down Scrabulous, thousands of visitors to Facebook, where the game most famously lives, lobbied to keep it alive and kicking.

Within hours of news of a potential Scrabulous disappearance from the Web, many bloggers and Scrabulous fans registered their disapproval.

Several groups formed, 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.

Madhosingh 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 the game. 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.

But for reluctant Facebooker Jessie Strauss, 27, the stakes are higher. Scrabulous lured her out of her anti-social network stance to the site. If the online game's plug gets pulled, she said she would probably ditch Facebook altogether.

"As far as social networking sites, I'm kind of over it," Strauss said. "I had MySpace. I wasn't that eager to get on Facebook. Then I got invited to do this Scrabulous thing. I thought, 'This is actually really amazing. My life has purpose.' … I don't think I would have any reason to log in to Facebook if it weren't for Scrabulous.'"

Although Strauss was surprised that Scrabulous and Hasbro weren't affiliated, she's similarly surprised that Hasbro is considering legal action, arguing that playing the online version encourages real-life play.

"I think people who ordinarily wouldn't play Scrabble might play Scrabulous games," she said. "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.'"

The legal kerfuffle came mere months after Hasbro signed with video game developer Electronic Arts to develop electronic versions of its classic board games. EA, however, insists that the issue is between Hasbro and Scrabulous, and has nothing to do with its deal.

"As part of our deal with Hasbro, we do have the rights to make Scrabble games in the U.S. and North America," spokeswoman Trudy Muller wrote in an e-mail. "We have games in development, but haven't announced for what platforms or when they'll be available yet."

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 like 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."

Future Trouble for Facebook?

In addition to Scrabulous' own troubles, 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."