Hasbro's Legal War on Scrabulous

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After many months of doing virtually nothing, Hasbro, maker of the board game Scrabble, finally moved today to shut down a hugely popular, rogue Scrabble website. The giant game company filed suit against the creators of Scrabulous in federal court in New York City Thursday morning, asserting copyright infringement and demanding that the counterfeit game be immediately taken down.

Two brothers from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, launched their online version of the word game in 2006. But it didn't really take off until 2007, when they ported it over to Facebook, where it's among the most popular add-on games on the giant social network. It has more than 512,000 active users who play it daily.

Hasbro, which owns the intellectual property rights to the classic board game, released its own test version of online Scrabble earlier this year, opening the slow and clunky beta Facebook app to an indifferent public last week. So far, it has about 9,000 users in the U.S. and Canada.

A spokesman at Hasbro said the company expected that figure to rise as it debugs the game over the coming weeks. "The No. 1 priority for Hasbro has always been to offer fans a high-quality, legitimate version of Scrabble to play on Facebook," said Mark Blecher, general manager for digital media and gaming at Hasbro. "We think true Scrabble fans are going to want to play the authentic game, the one like the board game they have at home."

Blecher said he expected that Facebook — which he said had been notified before the suit was filed — would comply with Hasbro's order to scrap the app. Scrabulous was still up by late morning P.T.; a spokesman said Facebook would issue a statement shortly.

The general manager said he also believed that Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, the developers of Scrabulous, would comply and pull their knockoff version from the Web. Blecher said Scrabulous is in obvious copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which is enforceable in the U.S. and Canada, and that Hasbro has also sued for damages, attorney fees and profits from Scrabulous. Despite earlier stories suggesting that Hasbro was negotiating with the Agarwallas and that talks stalled when the brothers asked for too much money for Scrabulous, Blecher said Hasbro has consistently declined to negotiate. "Hasbro never contacted the folks who have the infringing application," he said, adding that the company did, however, send the brothers a DMCA notice, warning that they were violating copyright law.

The Agarwallas have argued that Scrabble has been copied so many times in so many different ways, by other websites and board games, that the copyright no longer applies. Reached at home earlier today, Jayant Agarwalla declined to comment.

Hasbro holds the intellectual property rights for Scrabble in the U.S. and Canada, while online rights have been licensed to EA, which built the authorized app on Facebook. Outside the U.S., however, Mattel holds licensing rights, and the company has already filed suit against the Agarwallas in India.