Scrabulous: A Risk To A Monopoly?

After entertaining millions of users and wasting a countless number of office worker man-hours, the ultra-popular Facebook app Scrabulous looks to be nearing the end of its run on Facebook. Hasbro has filed suit against the developers, claiming that the game infringes on its Scrabble intellectual property.  Earlier this month, Hasbro launched its own version of Scrabble on Facebook in partnership with Electronic Arts.  The official version has already garnered about 20,000 total installs, according to app tracker Adonomics.

The lawsuit certainly isn't unexpected. Back in January, Hasbro requested that Facebook take the app down, but to no avail. And although there's been some grumbling on the Web (see the Facebook group "Save Scrabulous) about the big, bad corporation going after the little guys (Scrabulous was developed by two brothers based in Calcutta, India, one of which was a Scrabble superfan), Hasbro is obviously and completely within its IP rights -- Scrabulous is a straight-up copy of their game, and will be extremely stiff competition if they want to launch their own version (especially given the current version is a buggy beta, while Scrabulous has been time-tested).

But the question that Hasbro, and many other game companies, will have to answer in an age of easy access to the tools of game publishing is this: Is a takedown request and a lawsuit the best first option? Scrabulous has been installed on nearly 4 million Facebook profiles so far, and has over half a million daily active users. The back end is thoroughly tested and relatively bug-free, and has been brought off Facebook; players can play on, or over e-mail for players who have no interest in joining Facebook.

Scrabulous is arguably the best marketing campaign Scrabble has ever had. According to The New York Times, Hasbro and Mattel (which owns the IP rights to the game outside the U.S. and Canada) have declined to release sales numbers for the board game since Scrabulous launched, making it difficult to say whether the game has helped or hurt sales, but it can be said without a doubt that Scrabulous has made the game more popular.

Is it possible to have a middle ground between playing defense on intellectual property rights and allowing fans to exercise the increased creativity that the social Web allows? Surely Hasbro and Mattel could have approached Scrabulous' developers with an offer to purchase their completed product, rather than starting from scratch with a new and untested back end. Adonomics values Scrabulous at just over $2.7 million, and while that's a bit steep for development costs, surely the developers would prefer transfering their creation for cash rather than getting involved in a legal battle with Hasbro's legal team. So why not buy the game and user base and reward some superfans -- instead of  letting the lawyers draw blood?

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