A Few High-Scoring Words About Scrabulous

We interrupt what was supposed to be this week's column topic with a discussion we must have about Scrabulous.

You should know by now that the game's creators pulled the game from Facebook yesterday, because of Hasbro's copyright infringement lawsuit against Scrabulous. (Mattel, which owns rights to the game in some countries, is also in this dirty mix.) The punch line -- and isn't there always one where brand power struggles are concerned? -- is that Hasbro's own version of the game, which is available on Facebook, was hacked yesterday and wouldn't work. (The game is promoted with the phrase, "Play the authentic word game app today." Love that use of the word "authentic," when so many people are having an authentically good time playing Scrabulous elsewhere.)

While those of you who haven't been following this story get a little chuckle out of the hacking, let's contemplate how severely Hasbro doesn't get it. The company actually thinks it owns the game, when consumers actually own the game, no matter how many legal documents Hasbro can throw at the situation. That's a lesson every company has to learn if they are to truly honor their brands. This has always been the case, but as Hasbro is (I hope) learning, social media and digital technology are amplifying that lesson. So far, there are at least a dozen Facebook groups urging people to boycott Hasbro, and you know that, even with an official online version of Scrabble available, most Scrabulous fans won't touch it -- out of spite.



Here's what Hasbro should have done: bought Scrabulous. Of course, in doing so, it would have to admit that two Scrabulous fans from Calcutta -- Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla -- could not only out-program Electronic Arts (which has created Hasbro's version of the game), but are actually paying homage to and rejuvenating Scrabble, rather than threatening the brand.

Hasbro, like most corporations, sees the issue differently -- that financially rewarding two people for ripping off its game would be the equivalent of highway robbery. And Hasbro has a point. The only problem is, this point doesn't matter.

What does matter is that Scrabulous has attracted a big, rabid fan base, which Hasbro should honor even if it can't honor Scrabulous' creators. Consumers don't care about who created a product, they just care about whether it's a good product, and in Scrabulous, they've apparently decided that it is better than its official, authentic competitor. Consumers matter; legal documents matter much less.

I don't envy Hasbro. Surely, somewhere, their lawyers are making the case -- pun intended -- that the company can't be beholden to every Tom, Dick and Rajat who creates a competitive product. But if Tom, Dick and Rajat have created a more popular product, companies are beholden to them no matter what the corporate lawyers say.

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