'Scrabulous' debate may rewrite the rules of the game

Wildly popular Facebook application is in hot water for similarity to classic board game. But could it be a marketing treasure trove for Scrabble's trademark holders?

"I'll go on a hunger strike!"

So said one adamant Facebook user in the wake of the news that game manufacturers Hasbro and Mattel were trying to do something about the wildly popular, unquestionably addictive online game known as Scrabulous.

The game, which rose to fame when its creators turned it into an embeddable Facebook application, is a word game that's a whole lot like the classic board game Scrabble. It uses a playing board with "bonus" spots just like Scrabble. In fact, the rules are identical to Scrabble's.

The companies in charge of the "real" Scrabble, for obvious reasons, aren't happy .

Game companies Hasbro, which distributes Scrabble in North America, and Mattel, which is responsible for its overseas trademarks, have reportedly asked Facebook to remove the game from its application directory. And you can tell it's a serious legal matter because nobody's talking.

Facebook declined to confirm the report, and it said that it has not yet issued any kind of statement about Scrabulous; representatives from Hasbro did not respond to calls for comment.

The similarities between Scrabble and Scrabulous are crystal-clear, and it's a no-brainer to see why Hasbro and Mattel are miffed. To add to that, Scrabulous serves up advertisements, which means that its creators are making money off the concept. But what the game companies really ought to do is take a step back and realize that they can use Scrabulous to their advantage--without removing the viral game from Facebook.

Fans of Scrabulous, for one, aren't happy about the takedown news. On Facebook, an unofficial group called "Save Scrabulous" is growing fast, with more than 7,000 users at last count (and 5,000 hours before.) Its members, including the aforementioned "hunger striker," are livid.

"Leave Scrabulous alone!" one of them posted in the group's message board, a thinly veiled allusion to the "Leave Britney Alone" viral video .

Others were more visceral: "I've burnt my Scrabble board in protest!" one exclaimed.

A game of Scrabulous on Facebook. Scrabulous

Scrabulous is the creation of two brothers in India, Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, who founded Scrabulous.com in 2006. When Facebook launched its developer platform in May, the Agarwallas soon transformed their Scrabble spin-off into an application designed for the social network, and it caught on like wildfire. More than 2 million Facebook members are active Scrabulous users, and several hundred thousand of them play the game each day.

It was a catch-22 for the Agarwallas. The "Scrabulous guys" became Facebook celebrities, but the exposure meant that they were much more visible--and so were the obvious similarities between Scrabble and Scrabulous.

"It wouldn't be an issue if Scrabulous weren't so popular, right?" observed Darren Herman, director of digital media for marketing firm The Media Kitchen. It's the sheer mass of Facebook Scrabulous users that have made it a high-profile case as well as an inevitably ugly situation, if the game is indeed taken down. "We're seeing the power of social media in its early days. Since we're still trying to figure out the rules of the game, no pun intended, these types of issues are bound to arise."

In other words, according to Herman, the debate over Scrabulous is indicative of the fact that the world--or at least certain mainstays of the game industry--still hasn't quite figured out that a traditional course of action just doesn't always work on the Web.

"I don't think they are crazy to think this way," Darren Herman said when asked if Hasbro and Mattel are totally off base. "Scrabble came out in a time when everyone guarded their (intellectual property) tightly."

In the old order, a takedown notice may have been the only route. But this is the Web, and plenty of people have pointed out that Hasbro and Mattel are sitting on a marketing gold mine with Scrabulous. They have a gleefully addicted fan base, a machine for viral buzz (Facebook's platform), and the deep pockets to offer to buy Scrabulous outright--or at least strike an innovative advertising deal.

There's also no direct competitor. Neither Hasbro nor Mattel operates a Web-based, ad-supported version of Scrabble; video game manufacturer Electronic Arts owns the rights to electronic versions of the game, and it currently sells a PC game of Scrabble for about $20. (EA was not available for comment on the Scrabulous issue.) With Scrabulous, all three companies may be sitting on a marketing treasure trove.

Hasbro and Mattel might not get it. But the members of Save Scrabulous think that they do.

"Do these greedy fools not realize that they should be paying the creators of Scrabulous for all the damn fans of the game they created?" one angry Scrabulous fan from the United Kingdom asked on the group's "wall." He brought up a further point--that this is getting people excited about the musty old board game in a way they haven't in years. "It's like the music vids put on YouTube. It makes me buy tracks I never would have done, and frankly, before this game emerged, Scrabble was just something for rainy days in my childhood."

Another member of the group put it more concisely. "Scrabulous brought Scrabble back in style. They should be thankful."

 

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