March 4, 2008
"Your Move on Scrabulous!": Hasbro's Legal Facebook Faceoff

Around late November of last year, I stopped playing the popular Facebook application Scrabulous, because it was wrecking havoc on my productivity.

Back in January, I started up again, spurred on by Hasbro's crease-and-decist order and have since been nervously awaiting the outcome of the Hasbro versus Scrabulous legal faceoff. With Mattel having also joined the battle, every move might be my last (most recently played: Pledged, for 22 points). But it's telling that I decided to reintroduce the game into my still-overpacked schedule because of the need stake my claim while I still could: whether or not I plan to keep playing, I felt compelled to make known that I supported its right to exist.

According to a recent New York Times article, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Not only have multiple "Save Scrabulous" Facebook groups cropped up, some with several hundred thousand members, but the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, John D. Williams Jr., noted that "People believe it to be in the public domain . . . The idea that Scrabble belongs to a corporation is something that people don't or are unwilling to accept."

One question centers upon whether or not it's a good idea to alienate the slew of new and renewed scrabble fans that the site and the Facebook application, which has 2.3 million users according to CNN Money, has spawned.

One of the dominant attitudes is that Hasbro is behaving rather foolishly, trying to stomp out the success of of something that has been incredibly successful in promoting their product and making a roughly 60-year-old board game relevant in an age of Xbox and wii when they should be focusing their energy on courting the creators and players. Fans have even started boycotting the board game, believing its manufactures to be bullies who are bitter that they didn't think of it first.

As technology allows for more and more user-input and participation, the expectation to adapt, re-create, and engage with products on our own terms grows, and efforts to stifle this are seen as short-sighted and out of touch, whatever the legal backing.

But the legal side itself is another question. As a colleague in CMS, Josh Diaz, working in the GAMBIT game lab pointed out, the issues surrounding patents, trademarks, and IP have been under heavy debate in the (non-board) gaming world as well.

While Scrabulous certainly does infringe on the name and appearance, it's questionable how defensible a patent on abstract game mechanics might be. According to Josh, "A lot of Scrabble's design (and the name, naturally) may be protected as trademarks, but game mechanics generally don't fit into trademark or patent. A particular software implementation of a mechanic might fit, but judges have been kinda back-and-forth over how loosely they interpret 'implementation,' because they usually aren't programmers."

Which also makes me wonder, if the creators of Scrabulous were to patent their particular software implementation, where would that leave Hasbro in the creation of their own online version?