Facebook Application Scrabulous Suspended
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
People who signed into Facebook today looking for their daily fix of Scrabulous received a curt message instead: Scrabulous is disabled for U.S. and Canadian users until further notice. Well, can you spell bummer? Scrabulous is the most popular online version of Scrabble, and its disappearance is the most drastic development in a legal battle over the popular word game.
Joining us to talk about that and some offline Scrabble is our own Stefan Fatsis. He's the author of the book "Word Freak," about the subculture of competitive Scrabble. And Stefan, it's good to talk to you on this Tuesday.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.
NORRIS: Hello. So, you have the inventors of Scrabulous on one side, and on the other, the owners of the actual Scrabble board game, the big toy company, Hasbro. Can you give us a quick background on this dispute?
FATSIS: Yeah. Scrabulous software was created a couple of years ago by two brothers in India, Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, and it took off when it was added as a Facebook application on the social networking site. They claimed to have a couple of million registered users and more than half a million regular users in North America. But Hasbro says it notified the brothers a year ago that Scrabulous violated the company's intellectual property rights and it threatened legal action. Then last week, Hasbro sued the brothers in New York over what it called a clear and blatant infringement of its intellectual property. This all seem perfectly reasonable to me. Hasbro has to defend itself in the marketplace against intruders. Though, apparently, it's not an open-and- shut legal case.
NORRIS: So Hasbro has to defend itself. But why didn't the company just buy Scrabulous outright and keep the game's fan base, which I understand is quite large?
FATSIS: It is quite large. And apparently, there were some negotiations among the lawyers for Electronic Arts, which licenses Hasbro's games online, and the brothers or their lawyers. Hasbro says it never wanted a partnership and rather wanted to develop its own online Scrabble applications, which Electronic Arts has. It wants Scrabble to be consistent across platforms, which is also understandable. Now, Hasbro executives compared this to the music industry crackdown on sharing of files online. The question, though, is whether they've taken this action, filed this lawsuit and, essentially, forced Facebook to take down Scrabulous before they were ready to substitute a product that this added fan base would endorse.
NORRIS: Seems like they might be alienating core fans of the game. Is this a bad PR move for Hasbro?
FATSIS: Well, you know, judging from the initial reaction, it could be a short-term disaster for the company. Whether it's legal or not, Scrabulous is a terrific application, it's brought tens of thousands of people to the game of Scrabble. And Scrabble just doesn't get the kind of publicity in the offline world. Scrabulous fans now are creating groups with names like We Hate Hasbro's Scrabble.
FATSIS: There's a Save Scrabulous group that has more than 46,000 members. And the argument that they make is that Scrabulous has made them fans of the game and made them go - actual Scrabble boards don't take it away from us.
NORRIS: Well, let's to people who do like to play Scrabble on actual Scrabble boards the old-fashioned way. I understand there is a National Scrabble Championship going on right now.
FATSIS: And I wish I were there. More 660 people are finishing up 28 games of Scrabble played over four days in Orlando. The final game is happening right as we speak. The winner will be either Brian Cappelletto, an options trader from Chicago who's won this championship before, or Nigel Richards, who's a security engineer from New Zealand who lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And if he wins, he'd be the first non-North American to win the North American championship. Either way, these are two of the greatest Scrabble players of all time. They've got a near total command of the 140,000 or so words in the Scrabble lexicon.
NORRIS: Now, I take it at least one division already has a winner. His name is Bradley Robbins of Windham, New Hampshire. And he's only 11 years old?
FATSIS: Eleven years old, yes. There are six divisions at the tournament, and that's based on players' ratings. And Bradley played in the bottom division. He'd only played in a few tournaments before, none more than five games long. And he absolutely whomped the field at the National Scrabble Championship. He clinched the title with two games left to play. He's won 23 out of the first 27 games. And in one game, he played a nine-letter word - that is he used all seven of his tiles plus two that were already on the board, and he made the word retaining. So, take that Scrabulous devotees.
NORRIS: Impressive. Is it unusual to see kids beating up adults like this?
FATSIS: Not really. Not anymore, anyway. At one point in this tournament, Bradley and some teenagers led four out of the six divisions at the tournament. And that's partly because there's been a resurgence in Scrabble among kids. There is something called the National School Scrabble Championship that's held every year for kids in grades five through eight. I am proud to say that I coached a team at this year's tournament up in Providence, Rhode Island.
So you've got a lot more kids playing this game because they love playing games and they love words. And it is quite something for someone this young to just take the adults and tell them, I know better than you.
NORRIS: Thanks, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis normally talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports. And he doesn't only write about Scrabble, his new book is "A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL."
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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