There are two ways you can look at a popular Facebook app like Scrabulous, which is clearly an online version of Scrabble, one of the most popular board games of all time (at least for anyone with a cottage where it sometimes rains and there is no television). One is to see it as a rip-off of a company’s trademarked property — which is clearly the way that Hasbro and Mattel see it, since they have reportedly sent legal letters to Facebook asking them to remove the app.
The other way to see to see it, of course, is as a tribute to the popularity of Scrabble, and a kind of viral marketing for the actual game. There are dozens of (admittedly anecdotal) stories of people going out and buying Scrabble games to continue their online addiction offline. How many of those people would have bought a Scrabble game before Scrabulous came along? A tiny number, at best. So why not just buy the app from the developers for a couple of hundred grand and call it a day?
From a legal perspective, Hasbro and Mattel are no doubt totally within their rights to have the app removed, or to sue, or do whatever they wish to protect their trademark. But from a marketing perspective I think they are missing the point. It reminds me of Coca-Cola’s initial reaction to the Eepybird video with the Coke and the Mentos — they said they were considering legal action, because “that’s not how we want consumers to interact with our brand.” Morons.
Eventually someone at Coca-Cola saw the light, thank God, and realized that how people interact with your brand is pretty much up to them, not you. If you’re smart, you will be glad they are interacting with it at all, and you will find a way to capitalize on it. I think another way to look at Scrabulous is as the online version of a tribute band, or like the fansites that specialize in fiction based on Star Trek or Star Wars — some companies see that as trademark infringement, others see it as an opportunity.