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Opening Arguments

Same old rule

"Scrabulous was great PR for you and you had to ruin it for EVERYONE," wrote one whiny Facebook user after losing access to the site's most popular diversion:

It's game over for Scrabulous; the popular Scrabble knockoff game on Facebook is no longer available as of this morning.

Facebook users who logged on to play the word puzzle game this morning instead got a message that it has been "disabled for U.S. and Canadian users until further notice."

The game was one of the most popular applications on the social networking site, but Hasbro filed a lawsuit last week accusing Scrabulous makers of having infringed on copyrights with the Facebook game.

The first sentence says it all -- the game was a knockoff. Scrabble is trademarked -- it is owned by somebody, and you can't just take somebody's legal property for your own benefit. This is one of those old rules people online think don't apply to them. Sometimes, they're right, and some of the rules are being changed by our collective digital experience. But this isn't one of them, so far.


Wed, 07/30/2008 - 7:57am

I wonder what kind of intellectual property actually prevents people from duplicating Scrabble. If you call it something else, like "Crossword-like Board Game" that probably eliminates the trademark problem -- nobody is likely to be confused into thinking they're actually playing the Scrabble-brand board game.

A patent on the game method would have expired by now.

Maybe it's a copyright "look and feel" type thing. You can't copyright ideas, just a particular way of expressing that idea.

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 9:02am

Yahoo has apparently had a "knock-off" called Literati for years that Hasbro/Mattel has never bothered.

So instead of trying to actually bring out a version of Scrabble that people would like and be successful (i.e., competing) they put something rushed together and are trying to use the law to squash the guys that did it right.

Sorry, but I don't see much of a case for Hasbro/Mattel's "property" here. Copyright/patent shouldn't last forever.

Harl Delos
Wed, 07/30/2008 - 9:07am

Knockoffs are generally legal.

I doubt Hasbro has much of a case against Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla. There's a great tradition of big companies filing copyright infringement suits that can't win, simply to intimidate. Selchow & Richter has shut down lots of other outfits making Scrabble-like games, and this is the first time they've actually had to file suit.

And it's working, to an extent. The owners of Facebook have been intimidated, which is why it shut down. The Agarwallas have vowed to fight this, though.

Microsoft has a knockoff of Scrabble called "Word Wizard" as part of Bicycle Board Games 2.0. They give credits to a lot of people and organizations, but Hasbro/Mattel/S&R is NOT listed.

Scrabulous is a better game than Scrabble, apparently. They get 500,000 players on Scrabulous, but the online version of Scrabble gets only 15,000.

The Microsoft version plays OK, except that they have a bad dictionary. Many words - like "same" - are omitted, and many strange words not found in dictionaries are included. I think it's a UK dictionary, given that many of the words use English rather than American spelling.

Leo Morris
Wed, 07/30/2008 - 10:06am

Well, patents are only good for 20 years, but trademarks CAN last forever as long as there's not a three-year lapse in their use. As much as we might dislike making things easier for the Hasbros and Mattels of the world, intllectual property rights should be zealously protected as an encouragement to the next person who comes along with a better mousetrap or board game. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing all those "opoly" games based on city names involved paying some kind of fee to the "Monopoly" people.

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 11:08am

I was at a legal conference recently and heard a presentation on intellectual property. It used to be that songs, images, etc. fell into the public domain after a period of years. Not anymore. The laws have been changed and it was all due to the lobbying efforts of Disney.

Leo Morris
Wed, 07/30/2008 - 11:23am

That was for copyright, right? Even before the extension act (known affectionately as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act), copyrights were pretty damn generous -- the life of the author plus 50 years, so the kids would get a lot of money to blow. That got extended to 70 years. And corporate authorship went from 75 years to 95-120 years.

Harl Delos
Wed, 07/30/2008 - 2:38pm

Before 1978, a copyright only lasted for 28 years, with one extension of 28 years permitted.

That's the reason why "It's a Wonderful Life" became so popular - nobody at the studio remembered to renew the copyright, so it was royalty-free. Then when someone at the studio realized that the music copyright HAD been renewed, it really wasn't royalty-free after all. The folks at Comedy Central decided to broadcast it with an MST3K-like alternative soundtrack, but since they are owned by the people that own the copyright on the soundtrack, that plan got squelched. However, if anyone else wanted to do that, it's legally fair game.

Scrabble was invented as "Lexiko" in 1931 by Alfred Mosher Butts. That would make the original copyright expire in 1957, and the renewal expire in 1985.

There wasn't even a board back then - only cardboard squares with letters on them. They were selling fewer than 2000 games annually when Selchow & Richter bought the rights, changed the name to Scrabble, and offered it for sale in Macy's in 1953.

The Constitution says Congress may promote the creation of intellectual property by granting exclusive rights for a "limited period of time". Many people argue that the Mickey Mouse Protection Act is unconstitutional because it stretches the LPOT limitation beyond a reasonable limit. It hasn't been properly addressed by the SCOTUS.

Thu, 07/31/2008 - 3:32pm

Fortunately, we have people like Jim Davis that don't freak out about "intellectual property" and see the benefits of derivative works, etc.