Time’s up for Scrabulous?

As local news portals trumpet India’s newest homegrown social networking site, http://www.bigadda.com (see here), another Indian company that has achieved near cult status in the global web 2.0 bandwagon faces closure. Scrabulous, a free online gaming site that allows users to play a version of Scrabble, owned by the Kolkata-based Agarwala brothers, reportedly told Fortune that it had received a legal notice from Hasbro (the makers of Scrabble).

Hasbro has allegedly sent a cease-and-desist notice for trademark infringement to the website demanding immediate shut down. Similar notices have also been sent to Facebook, where Scrabulous is one of the most popular online games applications, with about 2.5 million users, of which at least a quarter are daily active, reports suggest.

While none of the websites (Hasbro, Scrabulous, Facebook) have made any information about this story available online, already several communities have sprung up on the social networking site petitioning against the closure, mostly comprised of die-hard addicts of the game.

The website, which allows users to play a free cloned version of the word game, generates revenues primarily through CPM and CTR advertising in the range of 18,000 to 25,000 USD per month, according to estimates.

Scrabulous, which is also trademarked, itself has no qualms about acknowledging its similarities with Scrabble, and hyperlinks to the board game’s actual rules on its website. Besides the similar sounding name, the Scrabulous board is patterned identical to the Scrabble board; with blue, pink and red squares for double- and triple-word scores. There are some minor differences though, such as a time limit for each move; an automatic adjudication system (you win if your opponent quits); and the use of dictionaries.

It is interesting that Hasbro should take this issue up only now, about 18 months after Scrabulous has been online. In fact, Wall Street Journal had portended a potential legal tussle some months ago in an article identifying the similarities with the legendary board game.

Reports also suggest that Hasbro (US & Canada rights-holders) and Mattel (which owns the rights elsewhere) have licensed the online rights to Electronic Arts (EA). At present, however, EA only offers a mobile version.

If anything substantive comes out of this (since it is not yet litigious), it will be interesting to see the response of Facebook. It has fairly comprehensive rules for third party developers who create applications for its website, but it might have to strengthen them further in order to avoid a similar occurrence.

Scrabble itself doesn’t have a free online version that even comes close to what the Indian website offers, and this seems to be what most fans of the game are lamenting about. Some suggest that Hasbro should either buy out or strike an appropriate licensing deal with Scrabulous, and continue to offer the same game online, without shutting it down.

This report points out a near-identical case some years ago:
In 2005 Hasbro issued a cease-and-desist order to the makers of a similar unofficial online game called e-Scrabble. The domain http://www.e-scrabble.com now redirects to Hasbro’s website.
However, an official online version of Scrabble is still not available.

Regardless of what avatar it takes after this, until the site is live, and the Facebook application still up, wannabe-wordsmiths will continue to scour SOWPODS (or do you prefer TWL?)* till well past bedtime, and dream up bingos (7-letter words) when asleep, waiting for the next Scrabulous triumph! Voila!

*SOWPODS and TWL are the official dictionaries used in Scrabulous.


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2 thoughts on “Time’s up for Scrabulous?”

  1. I received this comment via email:


    I couldnt help remarking on this article.There used to be a game called Literati on Yahoo Games which is quite similar to Scrabble (with some marginal differences added to it).I remember playing the game when I was rather jobless around 8-9 years ago and it was quite addictive.I do suppose it is still around.What are the implications when there is already a game around which outwardly at least seems to be infringing both Hasbro’s and Mattel’s rights (and I am pretty sure that both Hasbro and Mattel have refused to grant licenses to Yahoo)? Also, as you seem to suggest, since EA has been granted the license for online gaming by both Hasbro and Mattel, what are their reactions? Should it not be EA which has to get cracking against the Aggarwalas?
    Rohit Mammen Alex

  2. Hi Rohit:

    Thanks for the comment, and some insightful questions.

    1. I entirely agree about EA vs Hasbro/Mattel, and indeed that is something that users are wondering about. My reason for not putting that comment in the article was that I am not sure of the terms of the license, and could not find the license itself online, except this rather denuded Reuters report (http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSN1034062220070810).

    Thus far, EA doesn’t seem to have said a word. Neither have Hasbro or Mattel on who holds the license. I scoured all their websites yesterday, as well as news portals for signs of a byte from any of these people officially. The only people who are being quoted are the Agarwalas themselves who have admitted that they received such a notice, and that their lawyers are dealing with it.

    2. Yes, Literati is still around! I remember playing it myself many years ago, but then I got a Mac, and they didn’t support the platform. 🙁
    As it turns out, Yahoo also markets an official licensed version of online Scrabble (which is really sad, by the way) on the same page as Literati, so I’m guessing that keeps Hasbro happy.

    I suspect what has irritated Hasbro about Scrabulous is (a) their name; (b) *identical* board and rules; and (c) the fact that they’re making money out of it.

    In the same league of word games, for example, I found a free online version of Boggle (also Hasbro) which calls itself – originally – WEBoggle (heh), but which doesn’t have half the crazed following that Scrabulous does. Admittedly, it is neither as challenging a game nor as sophisticated a website. But Hasbro doesn’t seem to have hauled it up – as yet. I wonder why.

    As an aside, I don’t know why no one has attempted an online version of Perquackey, similar to Boggle but far far more superior! Maybe the Agarwala brothers could consider this as a fall back option. They already have a captive fan base!

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