Hasbro Sues Facebook App Scrabulous

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The end of an era may be fast approaching on Facebook. The New York Times reported yesterday that Rhode Island-based game maker Hasbro had filed a lawsuit in New York against the two Indian brothers behind the popular online Scrabble clone Scrabulous that has gained a huge following on Facebook. The application currently has just over 500,000 daily active users, all of which may be out of luck if Facebook complies with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act take down notice that Hasbro also filed with the site.

The Agarwalla brothers, Rajat and Jayant, who created the popular online version of the 60-year-old board game and are named as defendants in the suit, are located in India, meaning they could just ignore it. But the DMCA take down notice will be hard for Facebook to ignore.

“Hasbro has an obligation to act appropriately against infringement of our intellectual properties,” said Barry Nagler, Hasbro’s general counsel, in a statement to the Times. “We view the Scrabulous application as clear and blatant infringement of our Scrabble intellectual property, and we are pursuing this legal action in accordance with the interests of our shareholders, and the integrity of the Scrabble brand.”

VentureBeat reported that Hasbro began talking to Facebook about taking the game down earlier this year but held off on the lawsuit because the game was so popular. What changed? Most significantly, Real Networks, which owns the digital rights to the game Internationally (Scrabble is distributed by Mattel outside of the US and Canada) and Electronic Arts, which owns the digital rights in North America have each launched officially sanctioned versions of the game on Facebook in the past few months.

The problem for users, though, is that those games don’t hold a candle to Scrabulous. While the Agarwalla’s version is a fast, lightweight, elegant Javascript implementation, the official EA version of the game is clunky, slow, Flash-based, and far less intuitive. The user numbers bear it out. Scrabulous currently has 512,961 active users, EA’s and Real Network’s (GameHouse) versions each have less than 10,000 (granted, the EA version has only been online for about a week).

Hasbro, Mattel, EA, and Real were reportedly in talks with the Agarwalla’s to buy Scrabulous earlier this year, but the discussions broke down over price. It will be interesting to see what happens. Facebook will be hard press not to comply with a DMCA notice — especially when it is clearly warranted. But getting rid of their 11th most popular app (by daily active users, according to Adonomics) is something they are surely loathe to do. Facebook does have a history of ignoring requests from Hasbro to remove Scrabulous. That’s exactly what they did in January when they ignored a less formal take down request from the toy maker regarding Scrabulous and Boggle clone Blogglific.

Bogglific avoided the deadpool by reinventing itself as Prolific — essentially still a Boggle clone but with enough slight rule changes to avoid a lawsuit. That’s certainly an option for Scrabulous, though they’ll have to be careful. Rule differences are how other Scrabble clones like Yahoo!’s Literati are able to stay online unhindered, but they are hard pressed to capture the game play of true Scrabble.

If Hasbro wins and forces Scrabulous off the web, they’ll likely be in for a surprise — it’s unlikely that their official Scrabble game will ever be quite as popular as Scrabulous. There are a number of “Save Scrabulous” groups on Facebook, and the largest has 45,000 members — or 5 times as many people as play the official Scrabble app each day. That shows you where the affections of the people lie.

Josh CatoneJosh Catone
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Before joining Jilt, Josh Catone was the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb, Lead Blogger at SitePoint, and the Community Evangelist at DandyID. On the side, Josh enjoys managing his blog The Fluffington Post.

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