"C-E-A-S-E" and "D-E-S-I-S-T" aren't particularly high-scoring Scrabble words -- just 7 points each -- but in the real world they carry some clout.
Last week, game companies Hasbro and Mattel, who own the rights to the venerable board game Scrabble, sent legal notices to Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, the developers of an online version of the game called "Scrabulous." The corporations believe Scrabulous violates their copyrights and want the game taken down.
"We are not surprised that fans have thoroughly enjoyed playing Scrabulous on Facebook.com," Hasbro and Mattel wrote. "What consumers may not realize, however, is that Scrabulous is an illegally copied online version of the world's most popular word game."
There's little question about the similarities between the two games. Both use letter tiles with numerical values and a game board with squares containing bonus values. The rules and colors used by Scrabulous are identical to the board version. If the Agarwallas had simply printed a copy of Scrabulous and sold it as a board game, there would be little controversy about whether it constitutes a copyright violation.
But in the age of the Internet, as Hasbro and Mattel are discovering, the legal principles may be the same, but the public-relations challenges are far different.
Caught in the Crossword Crossfire
Last June, the Agarwallas created a version of Scrabulous that can be embedded as a Facebook application. In just six months, Scrabbulous has become one of Facebook's 10 most popular apps, with an estimated two million people playing it each day. The application's elegant simplicity and compelling game play have given rise to a number of Facebook groups that sound more like advertisements for 12-step programs: "Help I cannot stop playing Scrabulous!," "Scrabulous Is Crack and I am a Junkie," and "Scrabulous Anonymous (well, until you join!)."
Hasbro and Mattel, however, are not amused, and they have leveled their legal guns at Facebook as well, asking the social-networking site to pull Scrabulous while the legal dispute is resolved. But so far, Facebook has not done so and has repeatedly declined to say precisely what action the site will take.
Boosting the Popularity of the Board Game
The profound changes wrought by the Internet can be seen in the public's response to the dispute. Not surprisingly, a new Facebook group called "Save Scrabulous" sprang up in the wake of the news reports, and in just one week nearly 20,000 people have joined.
Most members of the group acknowledge the similarities between Scrabble and Scrabulous, as well as the legal rights of Mattel and Hasbro. But the overwhelming consensus is that the cease-and-desist letters are a terrible public-relations move by two companies that simply don't get the new economy. Numerous members of the group believe the owners of Scrabble should simply buy Scrabulous and sponsor it themselves.
As Toronto resident Lindsay Prajza put it in one posting, "To Hasbro -- this measure is incredibly short-sighted on your part. Here is a brilliant opportunity to sponsor Scrabulous on Facebook, thereby earning yourself a right to be on one of the world's largest social-networking sites."
Many other members of the Save Scrabulous group reported they have purchased official Scrabble sets to play with their families as a result of enjoying Scrabulous. "after rediscovering scrabble via scrabulous," player Penni Gibbons wrote, "i have gone out and bought a real life scrabble board game ... hasbro YOURE SILLY xxx."
To paraphrase the old Cadillac ad, "This is not your father's copyright dispute."