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The word on the law

Scrabulous lost out because its creators didn't understand what copyright protects.

August 02, 2008

Brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla of Calcutta, India, were such Scrabble fans, they developed a digital version of the game for the Internet: Scrabulous. Then they took it to the Facebook social network and drew more than half a million daily players. The success generated thousands of dollars in advertising revenue, but more important for the Agarwallas, it caught the notice of Hasbro and Mattel, which, inconveniently, own the rights to Scrabble. And so began another round of Copyright Holders versus Geeks, sometimes billed as Yesterday's Business Model versus The Future.

These battles all seem to follow the same script: Entrepreneurs see a gap in the market left by rights holders, develop software that takes advantage of those underused rights, build a huge audience and get sued. In this case, Mattel, Hasbro and their online partners may have done the smart thing first: Recognizing that the Agarwallas' software was hugely popular, they reportedly tried to buy them out before running to court, but the parties couldn't agree on a price. As it so often goes with these stories, Scrabulous' audience had grown much faster than its revenue, so the brothers and their suitors were left to speculate about its true value.

What makes the Scrabulous story uncommon is how blatantly the brothers replicated Mattel and Hasbro's property. Toy companies can't protect the ideas behind their games, but they can protect the unique way they choose to express those ideas. More than just a two-dimensional word game, Scrabulous is a faithful copy of Scrabble, down to the layout of the board and the points on the tiles. After the lawsuit:2008cv06567/329810/1/ arrived July 24, the Agarwalla brothers pulled Scrabulous off of Facebook and returned with a modified version, called Wordscraper. Although the new board, circular tiles and other tweaks may not go far enough, it seems the Agarwallas finally understand the distinction between ideas and expressions. Too bad they couldn't have learned it without a lawsuit.

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