Scrabulous Scrapped?

Facebook may lose popular online Scrabble copycat, and fans are up in arms.

Jan. 17, 2008 — -- As Hasbro fights to get an online copycat of its Scrabble board game called Scrabulous yanked off the Internet, thousands of visitors to Facebook, where the game most famously lives, are lobbying to keep it alive and kicking.

Within hours of news of a potential Scrabulous scrapping hitting the Web, many bloggers and Scrabulous fans were up in arms over the news.

Between Monday and Thursday on Facebook, at least seven different groups formed with nearly 20,000 total 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.

The online game, which is played much the way Scrabble is, 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.

Jason Madhosingh, a 30-year-old New Yorker who works in marketing, is the leader of one of the biggest "Save Scrabulous" Facebook groups; on Thursday morning, it was more than 16,000 strong, growing by about 4,000 people overnight.

Madhosingh was ecstatic 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 a way."

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 cause 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. I had MySpace. I wasn't that eager to get on Facebook," Strauss said. "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. They would think, 'Oh this is fun -- maybe we should play,'" she said. "I think Scrabble is sort of hot right now and it's all because of Scrabulous.'"

But obviously, Hasbro sees things in an entirely different light than Scrabulous fans.

"Scrabulous infringes on Hasbro's trademark. Like all intellectual property owners, we take this type of infringement seriously," Hasbro spokesman Gary Serba said in a statement. "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.

Neither Facebook nor responded to requests for comment.

The legal kerfuffle comes 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]. Young fans play on a platform they're accustomed to, and it's something that they can share with friends," Halpin said. "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."