Hasbro and Wordscraper spells F-A-I-L

You have to hand it to Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the two East Indian brothers who came up with the Facebook game Scrabulous — the fairly obvious ripoff… er, tribute to the Hasbro-owned board game Scrabble. After reportedly failing to arrive at an agreement that would see Scrabulous transferred to Hasbro’s control, the game company launched its own official Facebook game and then sued the brothers for trademark infringement. So what did the brothers do? Last night, they launched a very similar game called Wordscraper (Mashable was the first to spot the new game, and posted about it on Twitter).

So what does Hasbro do now? It’s not clear that the new game trespasses on anything legally protected. It doesn’t have a similar name, the board looks different and there are some different rules. Obviously, the concept of spelling out words and earning points is the same, but that’s not the kind of thing that trademark or copyright law is designed to protect. As a patent and trademark lawyer explained to Caroline McCarthy of CNET’s The Social, the idea of a game can’t be legally owned — only the real-world expression of that idea.

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Was Hasbro right to kill Scrabulous?

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.

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