‘Scrabulous’ Saga Brings Copyright Laws to the Forefront

August 20, 2008 Updated: August 20, 2008
Facebook removed 'Scrabulous' from its Web site due to alleged copyright infringement of Hasbro's 'Scrabble' game. The Facebook add-on was incredibly popular with up to 500,000 users playing every day.  (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook removed 'Scrabulous' from its Web site due to alleged copyright infringement of Hasbro's 'Scrabble' game. The Facebook add-on was incredibly popular with up to 500,000 users playing every day. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON—Internet social networking site Facebook yanked the “Scrabulous” game from its U.S. and Canadian sites after Hasbro Inc. filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court for the   Southern District of New York.

“Scrabulous” is a word game that borrows heavily from “Scrabble,” a copyrighted game owned by Hasbro, the toy company. “Scrabulous” even displayed links to the official “Scrabble” Web pages for rules of the game until early this year.

“This is an action for trademark and copyright infringement against Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla and their company, RJ Software, for creating and publicly displaying an online game that copies the essential and original elements of Hasbro’s venerable and famous SCRABBLE crossword board game,” the complaint stated.

Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the rights for “Scrabble” do not expire until 2063, roughly 70 years from 1993, when the inventor of “Scrabble” died.

However, not everyone is sold on the lawsuit, and U.S. copyright laws do have gray areas. Bruce Boyden, attorney and professor at Marquette Law School, says that “games are not copyrightable,” according to a series of articles about the “Scrabulous” lawsuit on the PrawfsBlawg, a blog that mostly addresses legal issues.

It is not the game itself, but parts of the game, such as the rules and components that make up the game, that are copyrightable.

Another interesting twist in the “Scrabble” versus “Scrabulous” saga is that Hasbro sold the rights to publish “Scrabble” online to Electronic Arts, a U.S. distributor of computer and video games.

The academia world suggests that Hasbro’s move was not well thought through and may backfire. It might affect the company’s bottom line and was a bad business decision, according to University of Pennsylvania professors in an article on Knowledge @ Wharton (KW), the publishing arm of the Wharton School of Business.

“There is no evidence [that] the Agarwalla brothers were doing ‘something absolutely disparaging’ to the Scrabble brand. In fact, ‘Scrabulous’ has been such a fabulously good thing for the Scrabble franchise [that] Hasbro should be celebrating,” said Peter Fader, co-director at KW.

The professors suggest that instead of paying exorbitant lawyers’ fees for pursuing the legal route, Hasbro should have paid the Agarwalla brothers and still saved money in the long run.

“Companies need to move aside from knee-jerk tendencies to bring in legal action,” Fader said.

The ‘Scrabulous’ Chronicles

Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect from New York, invented “Scrabble” in 1931. In 1948, Butts sold the manufacturing rights of the “Scrabble” game to James Brunot, who filed a copyright and trademark registration in 1948. The rights were sold to Selchow & Righter Co. for the U.S. and Canadian rights, and to J.W. Spear & Sons for rights to sell the game in other nations.

In 1987, Hasbro Inc. purchased the U.S. and Canadian rights through its subsidiary Milton Bradley Co., while Mattel Inc. assumed copyright for the rest of the world.

“Scrabulous” was launched as an online game in 2005 by Rajat and Jayant, two Indian brothers, from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. According to media reports, “Scrabulous” had about 20,000 active users and rose to more than 800,000 after it launched an application within Facebook.

Hasbro contacted the brothers and Facebook early this year. Facebook did not bring the “Scrabulous” site down until a lawsuit was filed. According to the media, Hasbro at one point offered the brothers $10 million for the game. A press release on Facebook states that “Scrabulous” generated annual revenues of $300,000 for the brothers. Negotiations broke down as the brothers alleged their game would be worth much more.

Copyright 101

Copyright is a right to be the sole distributor, manufacturer, or producer of a product, as stipulated under U.S. laws. Copyright laws protect the author, inventor, or creator of a product—such as music compositions, toys, games, and literary and artistic works—from others using it for economic gain. Only the creator or those who were given the right to distribute the product by the inventor can legally claim copyright.

The minute a work is invented, it is eligible for copyrighting. Public notice of copyright is not necessary, but advisable, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. The exception to the rule is that anything that has an indirect or probable association with another invention cannot be copyrighted.

Copyrights may have a 50- to 70-year life after the death of its creator, and have to be renewed every 28 years in the United States. The life of a copyright depends on many factors, including the type of work—if created by a company or individual—and is different from country to country.

For works produced through research or innovative efforts belonging to a company and with no named author, the copyright term could be from 95 years to 120 years.

Copyright Under Indian Law

Copyright laws in India are well-developed and comparable to those in Western nations. The difficulty lies in enforcing these laws.

“While the government carries out raids to catch intellectual property infringers, the court system simply does not work, and there have been few convictions,” said Heather Meeker from the LinuxInsider Web site.

The Indian Copyright Act of 1957 is an extension of the Indian Copyright Act of 1911, which is a near replica of English copyright law and in full conformity with TRIPS, an intellectual property law of the World Trade Organization.

KW suggests that the Hasbro case needs to be fought out in U.S. courts, as the “Indian cyber laws have not yet been fine-tuned.”