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In 2006, the tremendously popular social networking website, Facebook.com, opened its forum to allow all users to create and add “applications” that are accessible to all other users. Ranging in an immense variety of topics, popular applications include “Top Friends,” “FunWall,” “SuperPoke,” and “Pieces of Flair.” While most applications are generally innocuous, one popular application and frequent class-time diversion, Scrabulous, quickly found itself in the midst of controversy and a potential legal battle.
Scrabulous was created in 2006 by brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla from Calcutta, India, “after not finding a decent online environment to enjoy word games.” Scrabulous essentially presents the board game Scrabble in an online format, with games extending over many days and players from all over the world competing against one another from afar. The game quickly became one of Facebook’s most popular applications and currently boasts over 500,000 active daily users.
So what is not fabulous about Scrabulous? Well, only the little, minor, niggling fact that Scrabble’s license holders, Hasbro and Mattel, have not granted permission to the Brothers Agarwalla or to Facebook to create and implement a virtually identical version of their copyrighted product. Nor do Hasbro or Mattel receive any royalty payments or advertising profits from the creators or from Facebook.
Based on these facts, in January 2008, Hasbro and Mattel issued a joint letter to Facebook requesting the removal of Scrabulous based on claims that Scrabulous constitutes piracy and copyright infringement. Although the companies threatened further legal action, Scrabulous remains an available and popular application on Facebook.
In an effort to cull users from Scrabulous, Electronic Arts (EA) announced on July 7, 2008 that it will release an authorized web application of Scrabble that Facebook members may play legally. Although similar to Scrabulous, the authorized version will be limited to players in the United States and Canada because EA is licensed under Hasbro, which only holds the game’s North American rights. An authorized online version of Scrabble accessible outside the U.S. has previously been released by RealNetworks under Mattel’s license, which covers the game’s rights outside North America.
So what are some potential outcomes of all this turmoil? One possible, but unlikely, scenario is that if Scrabble’s Facebook application proves successful enough to satisfy Scrabble’s owners, they will drop their pursuit of eliminating Scrabulous, and users of both will remain happily entertained. Given the slim possibility of this situation, a second, more-likely, possibility is that the Agarwalla brothers and/or Facebook will voluntarily remove Scrabulous from Facebook in order to avoid very costly litigation against a formidable opponent. A third alterntative that may be favorable if the authorized version of Scrabble fails to catch on, is for Hasbro, Mattel, Facebook, and the Agarwallas to arrange satisfactory royalty payments and licensing agreements so that users may continue to play the game they love. Finally, if Scrabulous remains available on Facebook and agreements are not reached between the involved parties, Hasbro and Mattel will have little choice but to sue for copyright infringement. Indeed, if Hasbro and Mattel do not protect Scrabble’s trademark and copyright against unlicensed copies, the companies’ shareholders may have legal causes of action against the companies’ boards for failing to protect the shareholders’ investments.
In the end, one thing remains clear: the current state of Scrabulous’ blatant copyright infringement is neither desirable nor allowable and must be rectified in some manner. What the next move will be remains to be decided (bingo!).
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