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Suing Scrabulous: The Game Everyone Gets to Lose!

Well I guess it’s finally time to check out Wordscraper. Caving Responding to a formal complaint from Scrabble copyright holder Mattel, Facebook has blocked access to Scrabulous for pretty much everyone.

I was hoping to at least play Scrabulous when I travel outside the States, but no longer, because Facebook has preemptively blocked it across the globe. (Except in India, where creators Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla hail from and where a court case is still pending.) Worse still, I’m not particularly enthused by my alternatives.

The Argwalla brothers’ Wordscraper is generally seen as an inferior (if lawsuit-proof) replacement. For that matter, however, so is Electronic Arts’ Hasbro-sanctioned SCRABBLE Facebook app, which is hacker-prone, and from this player’s perspective, markedly inferior to Scrabulous — it’s excessively flashy, the board layout is confusing, and moving tiles is a kludgy process at best. I invited Liz to a game earlier this afternoon, but it took her awhile to get started, because the invitation was counterintuitively sent not to her Invitations box, but her Notifications channel.

Ironically, the best features in SCRABBLE, like live chat and leaderboards, were originally innovated in Scrabulous. To make matters even more aggravating, non-North American Facebook users can’t even play EA’s SCRABBLE, but instead, have to play yet another licensed version. (So much for playing with the 30 percent or so non-Americans in my friends list.)

So in this tangle of competing IP claims and threatened lawsuits, no one really wins — not consumers like me, but not even the companies most directly involved. Scrabulous was easily among Facebook’s very best third-party apps, and the Argawallas are none too happy with how they were still thrown under the bus: “[It’s] astonishing that Facebook, which claims to be a fair and neutral party, took this step,” Jayant told The San Jose Mercury News. If I was a Facebook developer, I’d be worried about that too.

Image credit: Fail embellishment by WJA.

9 Responses to “Suing Scrabulous: The Game Everyone Gets to Lose!”

  1. Scrabulous was a success because it was based on a game that most people were already familiar with (thanks to Mattel/Hasbro’s efforts), and because it appeared on Facebook at a time when the most sophisticated ‘games’ that had been implemented were mindless virals about Zombies and Vampires.

    How would any game work on Facebook without using the chat and friend network parts of the API? What would be the point?

    The action benefits Hasbro/Mattel as it gives them a clear run at implementing Scrabble. They will continue to improve the official implementations if there is a commercial impetus to do so. Scrabulous apologists will no doubt crow about official Scrabble drawing fewer players, as if Scrabulous wasn’t a fad that briefly capitalised on an uncontested market.

  2. Nowhere did I say Hasbro/Mattel’s IP rights should be disregarded. My point is that their particular IP enforcement and application strategy doesn’t seem to benefit anyone– not us, not Facebook, not even them. (Hence the image caption.) That’s a different issue, especially because Scrabulous was not a huge success simply because it was a knock-off of Scrabble. It was a success because of all the side mechanics and elements like chat and leaderboards etc. which weren’t copyright infringing. Were it just a simple Scrabble knock-off without all that additional functionality, it’s very doubtful it would have been as popular as it was.

  3. I agree with all the above – the author needs to show more respect for copyrights, otherwise he is saying that we can all happily copy articles from GigaOm, paste them on our own blog and then ask for sympathy when we get sued for copyright infringement.

    Yes, the licensing setup is stupid and the two digital licensees should work together on one game so people can compete against each others, but…

    GigaOm says “Copyright 2001-2008 Giga Omni Media, Inc.” at the bottom of every page so you obviously respect copyrights, so respect Hasbro’s.

  4. austinandrew

    I agree with the other commentors. It seems like your piece blames Mattel. Although it sucks that the official version isn’t as good as Scrabulous, it’s pretty clear that they ripped the game off. IP rights aren’t immune to the web.

  5. I totally agree with Johan. These developers are acting like children – breaking the law, expecting to escape consequences, and acting shocked when a legitimate company won’t support their idiocy.

    Sure, Scrabulous was a fantastic app (despite the fact that you are basically playing against whatever web-based dictionary/scrabble-solver program your friend is using). Sure, everyone loses in this current scenario. I’d also like to watch free unlimited movies on Facebook too and it would be a huge loss if I could, but then couldn’t because of legal violations… but that’s the same situation that we have here. It’s something that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

    If I were the Argwallas I would have given Scrabulous to Hasbro and leveraged it to get a good development job. Now they are just stuck with a much less interesting game that probably earns $11 a day based on Facebook’s phenomenal $0.05 CPMs.


  6. I agree Johan. Though the article wants to paint FB as squashing developers, you have to look on the other side of the coin. Do you want FB to start looking like the Pirate Bay? FB did the right thing in a case of VERY CLEAR copyright infringement. It would be similar to me doing really good covers of all the Beatles songs (under the name Beatabulous), selling a ton of tracks on iTunes, and then complaining when Apple took me down when I got sued by Paul et all.

    I’m not 100% sure about the details but didn’t the developers negotiate with EA/Hasbro to sell the game? If they did, why didn’t they sell for basically any price?

  7. This is a pretty naive piece. It’s fairly straight forward, save for the shared copyright:

    1. Developers rip off the game and make the FB app.
    2. It becomes wildly successful.
    3. But since the developers didn’t secure the rights, they got in legal hot water.
    4. FB, not wanting to be sued for harboring copyright violators, rightfully takes down the app.

    What am I missing here? I mean, I agree, the law kind of sucks and probably archaic concerning how long and what rights the copyright owners have, but I mean, these are the laws that we have.

    If they are really bad, we should change the laws. But to feel sympathy for people who blatantly ripped off the concept and game and then proceeded to make tons of cash off it, without any monetary flow back to the copyright holder, is ridiculous.