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I've Got The Scrabulous Withdrawal Shakes

That surge of productivity employers are registering all across the nation this morning is the result of the sudden death of Scrabulous, the addictive Scrabble rip-off that was one of the most popular features on Facebook.

Scrabulous, which had a remarkable 2.3 million users, vanished from Facebook today, the result of a longstanding dispute between the game's Indian creators and the big boys at Hasbro, the toy and game giant that owns the original board game, Scrabble. Hasbro has long accused Scrabulous creators Rajat Agarwalla and Jayant Agarwalla of stealing their game and not paying for it, and there is apparent merit to the charge. But still, you'd think that given the recording industry's colossal failure at the strategy of siccing the lawyers on the upstarts and refusing to acknowledge the market's clamor for the snazzy new online version of the product, the folks at Hasbro might have sought a different kind of solution.

But Hasbro's lawyers aren't total dummies: The company is clearly calculating that it's cheaper to sue the Indian renegades than it would be to buy them out. But does that calculation include the cost of alienating literally millions of Scrabulous fans and addicts?

There is an official Scrabble game on Facebook, but users widely proclaim it to be lame. And if you can overcome your revulsion at the idea of giving your business to the evil corporation that killed off Scrabulous, you'll find that they were unprepared for today's onslaught of addicts: On the Facebook Scrabble page right now, this error message is the only text:

Sorry

Scrabble is temporarily unavailable due to maintenance. Please check back later.

The good news is that Scrabulous lives on--for the moment--on its own site, but that is faint solace for Facebook users who used Scrabulous as much as a way to stay in touch with friends as a word game to pass the time and avoid their work. Without the automatic and easy way to start games with friends, the Scrabulous site has far less appeal than its Facebook version.

I mourn the loss of the four games I was in the midst of, two of which I was about to win. Really. I was. Well, now we'll never know. And instead of finishing off Valerie, Linda, my mother and my daughter, I wrote this blog post. Productivity--and the lawyers--win again.

By Marc Fisher |  July 29, 2008; 11:12 AM ET
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Comments

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My entire office is mourning the loss. We have already completed three weeks worth of projects this morning alone. Like Raw, we were all in fierce battles of office domination on this amazing application. Other than perhaps online poker, we may never know who is the game brains in our office.

Posted by: A true Scrabulous lover | July 29, 2008 12:36 PM

Glad I am not the only one twitching over this! I mean, am I suppose to work at work now?

Posted by: Alexandria | July 29, 2008 12:42 PM

Hasbro is actually making the right move, IMHO. They shouldn't pay for property that is theirs in the first place. Also, they apparently have an agreement with EA to produce computerized/online versions
(the official Scrabble game on Facebook is made by EA). Buying out the scofflaw Indian programmers would probably be against the contract they signed with EA, too. EA has deep pockets.

Posted by: Mike B-C | July 29, 2008 12:47 PM

In the past 5 years I have purchased two copies of Scrabble for PC - and it is a piece of poorly designed bloatware. It also requires the CD to run; you cannot load it on your PC like other software. (laptop = portable; stack of CDs = not portable) Per wiki the game of Scrabble is either 60 or 70 years old. Let there be competition to provide the game, just like there now are generic version of Monopoly. If Hasbro can't give players what they want, Scrabulous has and others should.

Posted by: jfx | July 29, 2008 12:55 PM

Excuse me, but how *exactly* do lawyers win? What should excuse these two very bright individuals who basically copied (unlicensed) Scrabble onto their own profit-generating website and into a Facebook application. Let's say you've invented, patented, and copyrighted the world's greatest Widget. Then you find out the guy next door is selling an exact replica of your Widget out of his garage. Would you be upset? I think so. The law, however, is there to settle your dispute and lawyers function as aides and advocates for their clients. Milton Bradley rightfully prevailed. NO lawyers would have been involved but for the brothers' actions. No "lawyers won." Get it right and get over it!

Posted by: A Lawyer | July 29, 2008 12:58 PM

Theft is good!

Posted by: Fagan | July 29, 2008 1:00 PM

Hasbro is going to be out of business in less than five years! Nintendo Wii rocks! Nobody plays board games anymore! Yeagh!

Posted by: Geen | July 29, 2008 1:03 PM

Hasbro would have been better off buying them out and firing their online developers. Lots of cost savings there.

Posted by: Jacknut | July 29, 2008 1:06 PM

A Lawyer is 100% correct!

Posted by: johng1 | July 29, 2008 1:06 PM

Wow, didn't see THAT last sentence coming, Marc.

It wouldn't be a Marc Fisher column without a gratuitous dig at lawyers.

Posted by: PQ | July 29, 2008 1:07 PM

The lawyers (and the people who love lawyers) need to get senses of humor. And, for Pete's sake, acquire those senses honestly instead of suing for them. You think you can do that for the rest of us?

Posted by: Not a Lawyer | July 29, 2008 1:14 PM

Oh no. I hoped this day would never come. I don't use Facebook at work but I did have a couple of Scrabulous games going with some friends. It was a good way to chat during the week and kind of fun. RIP Scrabulous.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 29, 2008 1:17 PM

"Let there be competition to provide the game, just like there now are generic version of Monopoly."

FYI, those "generic" versions of Monopoly (featuring your town or university) are all individually licensed by Hasbro/Parker Brothers. There are 2 or 3 notable exceptions, however, and H/PB is aware of them (and I suppose always on the lookout for others). There is an interesting difference in terms of copyright law between the development of the two games; Monopoly was widely developed before it was licensed and while its board is very distinctive it is *perhaps* not as distinctive as the Scrabble board... therein lies the rub. For the record, though, I agree with previous posters' comments on the weak PC and online versions currently on the market. As for me, nothing beats my deluxe edition complete with lazy susan turntable.

Posted by: A Lawyer | July 29, 2008 1:18 PM

I'm not a Scrabulous player or fan, but I have 20+ years experience in the software industry. And I think Hasbro made a HUGE mistake. The two brothers should have been approached by Hasbro with a generous offer in hand. After all, they found a way to tap a market of over 2 million users. Hasbro might win their "moral" argument but, really, it's not about that. They just think it's cheaper - in the balance sheet sense - to put a competitor out of business, even if such an entity is using their property. They forget that it's hard to put a dollar figure on good will - the emotional connection between a product and its audience.

In doing this, Hasbro has proven that while it knows how to make a "moral" decision, it doesn't know how to make a practical one. They're not going to make a lot of converts to online Scrabble, but they don't care about that. For them, the goal was to win a battle and defeat an enemy, not win over customers.

And sorry, the poster that dismissed the notion that "only the lawyers win" was wrong was himself/herself wrong. Only the lawyers did win in this case. The two brothers lost a share of their audience. The audience lost a beloved game. And Hasbro will lose customers. Case closed.

Posted by: wpreader2007 | July 29, 2008 1:26 PM

Sorry, but, I *do* have a good sense of humor (how do you sue for a sense of humor, exactly?!). I think of myself as a good, honest attorney who hates it when her profession gets tossed around too easily as the punch line of a joke. This issue actually provides an interesting study for folks interested in copyright law...

Maybe I am a bit sensitive, but you know what? It's Bar Exam day here in D.C. Let's give those kids taking the exam the benefit of a "lawyer-joke-free" zone. At least for one day, okay :)!?

Posted by: A Lawyer | July 29, 2008 1:26 PM

The MBA in me has been asking the same question: Scrabulous's goodwill among its players is an asset and Hasbro has just destroyed that asset. Why? There had to be a more creative way to structure this "deal".
The Scrabulous addict in me has just been hating Hasbro all day. Their version of Scrabble on Facebook sucks.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 29, 2008 1:27 PM

While I feel sorry for all of you poor Scrabulous addicts, this was as clear a case of copyright infringement as you are ever going to see. I don't care how bad Hasbro's online version of Scrabble is -- they have no obligation to allow Scrabble to be played online, period. Hasbro absolutely did the right thing in shutting down Scrabulous, so wipe the tears out of your eyes and get over it.

It doesn't matter who else wins or loses here -- HASBRO OWNS SCRABBLE. Period.

Posted by: Steve | July 29, 2008 1:32 PM

I gotta say, scrabulous got my girlfriend hooked on Scrabble. her birthday is in August, and I WAS going to go buy the deluxe board game version. along with a dictionary. that's $53 on Amazon. now I'll be looking for a used one. This was the best marketing Hasbro could have ever had, no one wants a corporate game shoved down their throats on facebook, this had all the patina of authenticity. not smart.

Posted by: northzax | July 29, 2008 1:38 PM

hey Steve,

no one is seriously arguing that Hasbro doesn't have the RIGHT to shut scrabulous down, just questioning the financial wisdom of the decision. 2 million people, most under the age of 30, educated, tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, were using a variation of their ancient product. college kids were playing srabble. it's graduation season, why don't you find a recent high school grad going to college and give them a scrabble board. think it'll get a lot of use?

people were talking about scrabble. comedians, magazines, TV shows, blogs. people were talking about Scrabble, obsessing about Scrabble in ways that Stefan Fatsis could only have dreamed of. I'm 33, and my 18 year old cousin at Harvard was playing scrabble with me online. as was my cousin in Tokyo, my sister in law in London, my college roommate in Cape Town and so forth. there are about 25 people I regularly played scrabulous with. 20 are between 25-35 and all have at least a Masters degree. these are demographics that marketers would kill for. And Hasbro just blew them all off. were they in the right? of course. Now, how are they going to get that kind of attention and heat again?

Posted by: northzax | July 29, 2008 1:53 PM

I wish I could rate this article. This is the only news that I care about today.

Posted by: Eurus | July 29, 2008 1:54 PM

Marc,

You're right -- there could have been a better outcome. The Indian thieves could have negotiated a license from Hasbro to continue to place the game on Facebook.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 29, 2008 2:02 PM

this might not be over yet. by killing scrabulous they can prove to hasbro that nobody will use their crap version. then they'll get the licensing deal.

Posted by: andrew | July 29, 2008 2:10 PM

Fisher's a cheap shot artist, and lawyers are easy targets. Fisher is probably bitter b/c he couldn't get a decent score on the LSAT.

How bout a swipe at the company that hires the lawyers? Lawyers are just the fingers on some company's hand.

Posted by: An amazing IP lawyer | July 29, 2008 2:16 PM

Fisher sure picked the right city to live in if he didn't like lawyers. Hmm.

Posted by: PQ | July 29, 2008 2:25 PM

How DARE some other company let people arrange letters to get points. HEATHENS!

/sarcasm

Hasbro, bad move. You shake hands, not slap them. Grow up a little.

Posted by: Rockvillian | July 29, 2008 2:32 PM

This Comment section give-and-take was Scrab-tastic:

The party of the first part asks attorneys to get a sense of humor in a humorous way ("acquire those senses honestly instead of suing for them")

The party of the second part, hereinafter referred to as AA (the Accused Attorney), proclaims to have a sense of humor, yet fails to get the joke of going to court for a sense of humor (obviously small claims in this case).

This was particularly curious because AA used clear reasoning and precise arguments in previous posts, but could not defend her lack of a sense of humor except to state its existence. Res ipsa loquitur, eh, AA?

Posted by: Take my wife, pleads | July 29, 2008 2:52 PM

I'm vexed to the qi and jabbing myself in the eye. 16, 11, 19, 14, 6 ow ow ow

Posted by: Amy | July 29, 2008 3:06 PM

When does the Hasbro / Mattel copyright expire? Does the "Bono Copyright Extenstion Act" passed by Congress give them 70 years after the death of the creator (Mr. Butts)? If so, though he invented the game in 1938 he lived til the 1990s. So a long time to go until Scabble joins Chess, Backgammon, Checkers as public domain.

As an entrepreneur who is co-inventor on patents I think that Act is out of control, it is better thought of as the Disney Forever Act. Copyrights are supposed to encourage and reward innovation, not squelch it. Hasbro is being destructive, and it will cost them and players, regardless of the 'legal' merit of their case. Their inability to embrace and extend Scrabulous is foolish. And I assume there were many lawyers involved in the decision...

http://blogs.zdnet.com/carroll/?p=1790

Posted by: jfx | July 29, 2008 3:09 PM

I can't believe that Marc was condoning the theft of property? Would he say the same thing about downloading songs without paying for them? Posting a copyrighted book in electronic format for everyone to read because "print" is out of date? Hasbro may be old fashioned by not coming up with a good electronic version of their game, but that doesn't give anyone the right to steal it.

Posted by: miked | July 29, 2008 3:18 PM

I was going to point out the same comical situation as Take my wife, pleads above, but with nowhere near as much flourish. Bravo. Let the lawyers keep digging. This is not mainly an IP issue, much as they would like it to be.

As for scrabulous- I'm mourning its loss, and getting some work done.

I hope Hasbro has the sense to work with the two brothers from India. They should learn from Hollywood and bittorent.

Posted by: 170 LSAT, studied econ instead- lawyers are lame | July 29, 2008 3:19 PM

Interesting article, Marc.

The amount of ignorance and stupidity exhibited in the comments is epic. We have ostensibly educated lawyers trying to argue that the best outcome is to take down Scrabulous. Of course, no mention of the reaction by the Facebook audience that NO ONE was using the official Scrabble version, beause it was laughable. So, we have two college kids, in their spare time, design and implement an online game widget that an entire company cannot duplicate.

And, all the while, Scrabble getting free advertising and having kids that wouldn't touch Scrabble in a million years to learn about it and play. Anyone ask whether Scrabble sales have gone up or down since Scrabulous took off on Facebook? Of course not, that would actually entail some thinking and analysis.

Of course, it's much easier to act robotic and brain-dead and flail around about copyright, because copyrights should be infinite (or if they're not, large corporations should make campaign contributions to Congress to ensure that copyrights are extended from ~7 years, to ~19 years, to ~99 years...after they bought out the original inventor in 1972).

Note that the weasels at Hasbro/Mattel purchased the rights for Scrabble in 1989 from Coleco (think Cabbage Patch dolls) when it went bankrupt.

It would've been WAY to visionary to hire the Scrabulous guys from Kolkata, India, but NO...much easier to pay a bunch of wind-up automaton lawyers to further clog the courts with this momentous infringement case that was really draining Hasbro investors of value.

Big, stupid music company CEO (that can't learn how to use email yet), meet even stupider board game company CEO (who still doesn't know how to pick up his voicemail without assistance).

Posted by: KTscrabulous | July 29, 2008 3:43 PM

Marc,

I am going to make an anthology of everything you have ever written and not pay either you or the Post any royalties.

As an artist myself, I GET TO DICTATE the terms under which my work may be reproduced or distributed. If I want to let things be free, that's MY right, not yours. And it doesn't matter whether I am a poor individual or a large corporation.

Sheesh, you would think a writer would get it.

Posted by: bkp | July 29, 2008 3:58 PM

Obviously the brothers didn't infringe on the entirety of the original concept, BECASUE THEY CAME UP WITH AN ENTIRELY NEW PRODUCT: an online version of the Scrabble game which actually works.

Now Hasbro has an online version of the game which doesn't work nearly as well. They were within rights to sue, but should have come to an agreement to recoup damamges and officially license the clearly superior product.

Music industry made the same mistake when it missed the internet boat as well.

Posted by: Tim | July 29, 2008 4:10 PM

A copyright effectively gives monopoly power over a particular product. With monopoly power, it is ALWAYS rational to affect a shortage to be able to charge more for the product. This may seem "unfair" to the consumer, who would find that a certain product is not as readily available as he or she would have liked, but this is a profit maximizing strategy for the producer. People can whinge all they want about the rights holders not getting new technology, fan loyalty, or whatever other drivel they can come up with, but they are the ones not getting it (here's a novel concept--of course the demand for pirated or non-licensed media is higher--the demand for everything is highest when it is free.)

This I learned when I began my economics education in high school.

And to the MBA above who does not understand this, I can only hope you are never put in charge of anything important.

Posted by: bkp | July 29, 2008 4:12 PM

"This was particularly curious because AA used clear reasoning and precise arguments in previous posts, but could not defend her lack of a sense of humor except to state its existence. Res ipsa loquitur, eh, AA?"

Clear reasoning and precise arguments vs. likely knee-jerk defensive reaction to lame joke?

I'd predict A.L. would take the former over the latter any day...

Posted by: (In defense of) A Lawyer | July 29, 2008 4:33 PM

The online Scrabble game that Hasbro put on Facebook sucks. I noticed today it's under reconstruction because there were so many problems.

That being said, if they can fix it and get it working well, I'll bid a fond farewell to Scrabulous and switch to Facebook Scrabble without much trouble or agony. I think there are a lot of upset people, but I think most will get over it and move on - providing Hasbro delivers a quality online product.

Posted by: Pam | July 29, 2008 5:06 PM

wpreader2007: "And I think Hasbro made a HUGE mistake. The two brothers should have been approached by Hasbro with a generous offer in hand. After all, they found a way to tap a market of over 2 million users."

Except that Hasbro/Mattel sells over 3 million sets a year. They don't need 2 million freeloaders.

There is an additional reason for this lawsuit that hasn't been mentioned in the media. Hasbro has a contract with EA to develop the online version that MIGHT be exclusive. If so, allowing Scrabulous to continue would violate such a contract.

Posted by: Terry | July 29, 2008 5:18 PM

Yeah, right. If I steal your car what would you offer to buy it back from me? If the price is right, maybe I'll steal it again next week.

Hasbro offering to buy out the developers would just encourage every third world nerd to infringe IP to try to become the next Scrabulous. Someone whose profession is based on IP should get this.

Posted by: ghokee | July 29, 2008 5:22 PM

there's always the lovely & free
international scrabble club www.isc.ro


it is basic and the server's in romania!
but it's a start.

Posted by: z the y | July 29, 2008 7:03 PM

hey Fisher, who would you call if someone plagiarized and sold your stories or writings as their own (not that anyone would) and made a tidy profit doing it, or if someone accused you of libel?

hint, it's spelled L-A-W-Y-E-R

Posted by: another lawyer who lost respect for Fisher | July 29, 2008 9:40 PM

Please patch this blog and our pleas to the scrabble tzars who think they are missing out on yet MORE money!!!! BFD they created a game we all love! Thanks! I bought the board game once. So did my sisters and my mother, and her mother!!!!!! When is there enough for these monsters?!!!! Can't they see they are making ass%^les of themselves??!!! I personally was asking for intervention because I am so addicted to Scrabulous!!! I lost 38 games myself! I hope they come to their senses and restore our games, and stop proving to be greedy pigs. But what is the likelihood of that? Like Hasbro NEEEDS more money ort attention? PIGS!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 30, 2008 12:36 AM

Q: What do lawyers use for birth control?
A: Their personalities.

Posted by: sky | July 30, 2008 12:39 AM

The Facebook app is only blocked in the US & Canada (because Hasbro owns the rights in those 2 countries, Mattel owns them for the rest of the world). There are ways to pretend you're in another country, if you absolutely must play the game on Facebook.

The Scrabulous game is also still available in the US on www.scrabulous.com (for now anyway).

From some of the articles I've read, Hasbro did try to approach the creators of Scrabulous, but they wanted too much money so that's when the legal action started. If that's true, then they (the Scrabulous people) are not exactly the innocent victims everyone's proclaiming them to be, now are they?

My final point: they called the game Scrabulous (sounds similar to Scrabble), used a similar coloring scheme for the board, used the same tiles, the same scoring - but they didn't think that Hasbro & Mattel would mind?

Posted by: illdini | July 30, 2008 7:36 AM

Do any of you lawyers posting here practice IP law? Copyright, patents, trademarks? If you did, you'd be the first to mention how broken the system is.

The problem with most IP law is that the lunatics have been running the insane asylum for far too long. When the standard term for copyright has ballooned to life-of-the-author-plus-70-years (or 95 years for corporate works) there is a fundamental flaw in the system. When society was much more dispersed and publication/transmission methods were far more primitive, the term of IP was much shorter. Does that make sense to you? The worst part is that it's all so that Disney can keep making money on Mickey Mouse for another 25 years.

When the RIAA, MPAA, major publishing houses, patent trolls, and other vested interests are crafting all IP legislation, the free exchange of ideas dies. When the free exchange of ideas dies, so do innovation, freedom, and prosperity.

Posted by: Leesburger | July 30, 2008 6:07 PM

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