So the hammer has finally come down on Scrabulous, the Facebook game developed by two Indian brothers that become a viral hit only to be sued by Hasbro, which owns the licensing rights to the Scrabble board game. Trying to play the game now brings up an error message saying it is unavailable to U.S. or Canadian residents. Electronic Arts, meanwhile — which licenses the rights from Hasbro — has launched its own official version of the game on Facebook, although whether people will make the switch to the new version or not remains to be seen.
I’ve been kind of fascinated by this case ever since it first appeared. Not just because Scrabulous became so popular so quickly, but also because it seemed to boost interest in the actual board game itself, with stories of people addicted to the Facebook game going out and buying real-world copies for the first time. My first reaction was to cheer for Scrabulous, and wonder why Hasbro or EA didn’t just buy the app from the Agarwalla brothers and take advantage of all the free marketing their game was getting through Facebook. Mashable makes the same point here.
But lots of people responded that this would effectively reward the Agarwalla brothers for what amounts to copyright infringement, since the game on Facebook looks (or looked) virtually identical to Scrabble. Obviously that’s wrong. Right? I’ve been going back and forth on that question for some time now, and still haven’t decided. On the one hand, copyright should allow Hasbro to control where the game appears — but at the same time, Scrabulous wasn’t charging people to play (although it did generate revenue from ads, as several people have noted), and it helped promote the actual game. Why not give the Agarwallas something to compensate them for their ingenuity?
As Sarah Perez notes in her Read/Write Web post, there were apparently negotations with the Agarwalla brothers that would have seen Hasbro and the other license holders pay them for the app, but according to the New York Times they turned down the deal. Were they holding out for too much, or were Hasbro and the others unwilling to pay a fair price?