If 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.