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February 5, 2008

Scrabble Squabble

Posted: 03:02 PM ET

If you're a Facebook user, you might be one of the more than millions of people who play "Scrabulous," an online word-game similar to the classic board-game "Scrabble." The game is so similar in fact that Hasbro, the makers of "Scrabble," is calling it a copyright violation, via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). They have since sent cease-and-desist letters to both Facebook and the developers of "Scrabulous."

"Scrabulous" first appeared online in 2005, the creation of two Indian entrepreneurs, Rajat Agarwalla and Jayant Agarwalla. It wasn't until June of '07 that it became a hit thanks to Facebook. The game now boasts nearly 2.3 million players, more than 500,000 of which play on a daily basis – more than enough to make Hasbro take notice. (In the UK, Mattel holds the copyright for Scrabulous.)

Shervin Pishevar, president of SGN, the Social Games Network, which creates original content for sites such as Facebook, suggested to me in a phone conversation that part of the reason for Hasbro's interest is that social gaming represents a new wrinkle – and a growing opportunity – in the gaming space.

Pointing to the number of players who have signed up for SGN's original titles such WarBook, Pishevar says "in order to create success, you don't have to copy games." Adding that the future of social gaming rests on innovation – not imitation.

Hasbro's cease-and-desist to Facebook and Scrabulous has inspired thousands of players to organize in dozens of groups on Facebook, hoping to encourage the games giant to find a way to resolve the issue amicably versus shutting down the game completely.

The conflict also represents a new wrinkle in Digital Copyright.

New Zealander Roger Nesbitt, who created another popular Facebook word-game "Boggilific," also received a cease-and-desist notice from Hasbro – claiming his game infringed on their copyright for "Boggle."

Reached via Facebook, Nesbitt told me his first impression when he received the notice was "well, it's all over then." He then posted a message about the situation on the game's page and received such flood of responses he was inspired to keep the game going. In an e-mail, Nesbitt explained "a crash course in copyright law taught me that game concepts could not be copyrighted – which is what the DMCA covers." Nesbitt recently changed the name of his game and relaunched as "Prolific," noting he hasn't heard from Hasbro since.

Hasbro declined our request to comment on this story.

Matt West, CNN Entertainment Producer

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Matt   February 5th, 2008 4:16 pm ET

I haven't heard anything about any kind of deal (in either case).

A "game concept" can't be copyrighted... but copying the exact rules of a published board game (or changing them in only insignificant ways) and distributing your own version is different.

A board game is, when you get down to it, essentially just that set of rules. If such games are going to be covered by copyright law (and not, say, patents), an infraction is going to be someone other than the copyright holder distributing a game with identical or nearly-identical rules.

Jake   February 5th, 2008 6:57 pm ET

They should work out a deal with Hasbro and just call the game scrabble. Then Hasbro would get advertising out of it too.

Caroline Miniscule   February 7th, 2008 4:43 pm ET

"Scrabulous." "Bogglific". Of course they're infringing on copyright. Quite blatantly. But the solution is easy – just pay Hasbro a licensing or royalty fee. They should have done that up front.

Phyllis Patton   February 7th, 2008 5:46 pm ET

The above E Mai8l refers to Romney and his speech today in Washing to a conservative group.

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