Posted April 7, 2008 5:43 pm by with 9 comments

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board of an abandoned scrabulous gameIf you haven’t been following the copyright battle over the popular Facebook app Scrabulous, here’s a bit of catch up: Scrabulous is an online version of the board game Scrabble—but it was launched (as an independent site and later a Facebook app) without proper authorization from the joint copyright owners of the board game, Hasbro and Mattel.

To further complicate the issue, the digital rights to the game are jointly owned by two other companies, Electronic Arts (who has a deal with Hasbro) and RealNetworks (who has deals with Hasbro and Mattel), neither of which authorized the Scrabulous site and app.

Hasbro and Mattel threatened to sue the creators of the Scrabulous site and app, Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla of Calcutta, for copyright infringement. About a month ago, there seemed to be a possibility that RealNetworks would buy the Scrabulous app and/or site, legitimizing the use of the copyright.

However, that deal never materialized and today, RealNetworks announced its own Scrabble app for Facebook. The new app, “Scrabble by Mattel,” will be available only to Facebook users outside the US and Canada—but does not plan to authenticate its users’ locations.

Part of this arrangement must have to do with the way the rights have been divided in the joint agreements: Mattel owns the rights to the game outside North America, while Hasbro owns the rights within North America. (I guess Mexico and Central America don’t count anymore. Did they get annexed by South America while I wasn’t looking?) According to the New York Times today, the official version of the game, which has been online for “weeks,” has only attracted 2000 users—about 0.003% that of Scrabulous (about 600,000 users). The Times says the official games’ features are also subpar:

Facebook Scrabble takes a long time to load, it does not always update quickly to show recent moves, and the words the game will accept do not reflect the Tournament World List Scrabble dictionary. In a recent game, for example, Scrabble by Mattel accepted “feen.” Right now there is no way to challenge opponents’ moves, and no way to play commonly used words like “zen” that are not officially sanctioned Scrabble words.

RealNetworks’ move is interesting since it does have a deal for digital rights with Hasbro, who owns the North American rights. However, the details of that deal, and the division of those rights with EA, could have complicated the issue—possibly enough to prompt RealNetworks to the non-North America–only version.

With a worldwide deal apparently off the table, the legal status of Scrabulous is once again tenuous. Personally, I don’t think that the concepts of copyright and intellectual property were automatically nullified when Al Gore invented the Internet, but I also enjoy the occasional Scrabulous game. I hoped that some deal would come for Scrabulous, and it’s still possible that it may be acquired (or even buy rights, perhaps) for use within the US and Canada.


  • PS3

    How many points for a triple word score for “confused”? What a muddle.

    Personally speaking, as much as I love scrabble, you can’t beat the feel of the tiles and delving around in the bag…and occasionally knocking over your opponents tiles. Has to be offline for me.

  • I wonder why the deal was not done. If I was Jayant and Rajat I’d be worried that the site would get shutdown once the lawyers really start billing the hours.

  • Oh my good – my wife loves that game – she will be crushed 🙂

    I guess BattleShipz is out of the question 🙂

  • I’m surprised if anyone has rights to this game, it’s like has rights to tic-tac-toe.

  • It’s hard to “win back” users. Why would they switch? If I were a copyright holder, I’d offer to buy the site for 50% its value instead of filing a lawsuit. Then I’d migrate the user database to my own version, but in this case I’d keep the software since it’s better.

  • It’s really just a long winded case that will end up with everyone losing. If anyone was smart, they would partner up and get the Scrabulous creators on board with their tech department! Collaboration builds better products.

  • “Everybodies got they cups, but they aint chipped in.” Why would they even attempt this knock off?

    The 1st thing that comes to mind is McDowells’s. If you think back, you’ll remember the movie.

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  • It seems like the only people who are going to screwed by this is the people who like playing it online. What a bummer.