More T-R-O-U-B-L-E for Scrabulous?

Companies ready Scrabulous competitor on Facebook: the real Scrabble.

July 7, 2008 — -- First, members of Facebook fell in love with Scrabulous, an unauthorized, near-identical online copycat of the board game Scrabble; legal issues ensued.

Now, after a months-long legal kerfuffle, game publisher Electronic Arts and Hasbro are striking back by launching a Scrabble application on Facebook by month's end.

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

The companies will launch a Facebook application of the long-time word game by the end of July; an online version of the game is available now at

The Scrabulous fracas began in January, when Hasbro tried to get the online copycat yanked offline. 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 also can be played online at the brothers' Web site,

Despite that fight, the Scrabulous application is still available on Facebook.

Hasbro refused to comment on the current legal fight, spokesman Gary Serby told in an e-mail.

"Hasbro has been consistent in stating that Scrabulous infringes upon our intellectual property, and we are keeping our legal options open," Serby said. "We have no further comment at this time on Scrabulous and our legal strategy going forward."

Earlier this year, Serby refused to comment on reports that Hasbro sent out legal notices to four parties involved in developing and hosting the game.

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."

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

The Agarwalla brothers also declined to comment.

Backlash Against Gamemakers

As Hasbro fought to shut down Scrabulous in January, 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."

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."

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."