Facebook Scrabulous sued by the makers of Scrabble

Hasbro has filed suit in the NY District Court seeking to have Scrabulous removed from Facebook and seeking unspecified damages. On one level it’s astonishing that the process has taken this long.

Hasbro has owned the North American rights to Scrabble originally designed in 1948 since 1986. Scrabulous a near-complete Scrabble clone was rolled out by Indian software RJ Softwares as a standalone site in July 2006 but got its major boost when a version was introduced for Facebook perfectly catching the wave of that site’s own rise to prominence after it enabled applications in May 2007.

Perhaps mindful that suing people doesn’t always result in a lot of good corporate karma in the Internet age (remember 2Clix?) the initial strategy of Hasbro and its partners was not to sue Scrabulous and its developers brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla but to roll out its own official version of Scrabble for Facebook. This debuted in October last year outside the US and in the States just a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately the game in question was (and there’s no nice way to say this) lame beyond belief compared to its rival.

Overdesigned to the point where it was hard to recognise you were in Facebook at all it also suffered from a weird if inevitable licensing quirk: people in the US can’t play people anywhere else because Hasbro had sold the electronic rights to Scrabble to different board game companies around the world. (That’s also the reason for the delayed appearance of the Facebook version of official Scrabble Stateside relative to Aussies and other nations).

Scrabulous suffers no such restriction which is doubtless one factor in its popularity. But the better interface is equally important as is the undeniable first-mover advantage. As of this writing the non-US version of Scrabble has just under 10000 regular users; the US version boasts just above that number. Both are dwarfed by Scrabulous’ 500000+ user base.

Given sufficient determination and legal funding there’s no doubt Hasbro could sue Scrabulous off the face of the earth but it’s not all clear that would achieve anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t persuade people that Hasbro’s alternative is better; it might annoy some players so much that they seek out a different word game altogether.

Coming up with a realistic licensing model – where Scrabulous survives in its own right but pays a royalty to Hasbro for what is undeniably a concept that it owns – seems like a good long-term solution. On the other hand that presumes that income from Facebook advertising is enough to offset ongoing running costs and leave everyone with a profit. Maybe we’ll have to wait another year and find out.