Scrabbling for a piece of the pie

Matt Thomas on why the games giant Hasbro should think carefully before ridding Facebook of popular application Scrabulous

Is Hasbro the cleverest or stupidest company in the world? The makers of Scrabble, which has sold 100m copies worldwide in 121 countries and 29 languages, have asked Facebook to remove its popular application Scrabulous.

The news has sent the 600,000 addicted Facebookers into a foam-mouthed frenzy and the rest of us wondering if Hasbro’s intentions are really to shutdown Scrabulous or the first steps of an acquisition?

I really hope it’s a planning to buy-out Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, the two brothers from Calcutta behind Scrabulous.

They started it after an alternative free online scrabble game they enjoyed began to charge. They’ve been as surprised as anyone at its meteoric rise in popularity, but even as one of Facebook’s hottest attachments, revenues of $25,000 a month are surely modest enough for Hasbro to look the other way and cash-in on a revival in interest in the game.

Hopefully, Hasbro is clever enough to see the benefit of waiting for someone else to launch an online version of its classic, take it to market, programme and debug it and garner the interest of a critical mass before snapping it up.

This is how it should work, encouraging innovators like Jayant and Rajat that their efforts will be rewarded and perhaps fund further work we can all benefit from – not land them in a legal and financial mess likely to put them off entrepreneurship for life and see all their hard work stripped away from them.

OK, copyright is copyright and while game rules aren’t overly protected, the Agarwallas should perhaps have been more careful in how closely they replicated the Scrabulous board. But ask yourself, who’s any worse off? Are the Agarwallas a threat to Scrabble or actually its best advocates for years?

The story also flags wider ramifications for web2 sites, such as Facebook. As Google has quickly learned post-YouTube acquisition, a ‘do no evil’ philosophy sits less comfortably once you’re a billion-dollar corporate. I mean, who are Hasbro’s lawyers more likely to go after, two brothers making $300,000 a year or Facebook’s crisp millions?

Since Facebook opened its doors last year to outside application providers, it’s become overrun with small developers pinning their hopes on producing the next big time-wasting online distraction. It’s likely to monitor the legal rights to applications mirroring existing products more closely going forward now.

Let’s hope Hasbro and other larger companies reduce the need for that and view successes such as Scrabulous as what they actually are: flattery, brand affirmation and opportunity, not cynical attempts to pass-off or steal intellectual property.

Come on Hasbro, do the right thing!

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