Rory Cellan-Jones

Facebook, Scrabulous, and the End of Innocence

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 16 Jan 08, 13:35 GMT

Oh no. I’d finally managed to kick the Scrabulous habit – at one stage I had eight games going simultaneously – when news came through that the Facebook application was under threat from the makers of Scrabble. After a couple of months in rehab, I had to start another game – just so that we could get some television pictures, you understand.

But the bust-up over a game which is currently enjoyed daily by nearly 600,000 users is not just of interest to the addicts. It tells us something about what happens when bright young internet brands start to grow up.

Remember when Youtube was young, all those years ago? It started life by maintaining that it was merely a playground for the video activities of its users – so if a teenager posted a happy-slapping video from a mobile phone or grabbed the latest episode of Lost and puts it up for friends to enjoy, that was not their fault. Then Google bought Youtube for an outlandish sum, and both regulators and litigators realised that here was a business worthy of litigation and regulation.

So last May Facebook threw open its doors to outside developers. Immediately, it entered a new golden age where all the work of making the network more compelling would be done by keen young kids from Bangalore to Berkeley –without payment, and with no comeback if they made a mess on the carpet.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that. For one thing, a zillion messy and annoying applications have spread like bindweed across Facebook, making it a much less attractive place to hang out. For another, those who are unhappy about any aspect of those applications are more likely to target what is now a $15 billion company (on paper, at least) rather than the developers.

ScrabulousSo the letters from Mattel and Hasbro accusing Scrabulous of stealing their intellectual property have winged their way to Facebook HQ in Palo Alto, rather than to Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the two brothers who designed it. Mind you, they are rumoured to be making $25,000 a month from selling advertising on Scrabulous, so they too will be in the sights of Scrabble’s two owners. But my point is that, as Google has already found, the early dreams of being a happy-clappy, open-source, “do no evil” kind of business soon fade when the realisation dawns that you are worth suing.

Incidentally, some friends have suggested that the demise of Scrabulous (if this is not just a clever tactic to buy up the application) is what will finally see them departing Facebook. “The end is nigh!” was a message from one. But writing this post has reminded me of its usefulness. I spoke to several Facebook friends who are developing applications, and got a message through to Rajat Agarwalla, receiving this speedy reply:

Hi Rory,
At the moment we would not be able to talk to you. However, we'll be in touch with you very soon! :)

Oh well, in the meantime, back to more serious matters. Can anyone think of a seven letter word involving the letters N,O,Y C, E, I and W?


  • 1.
  • At 02:42 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • niall wrote:

Wince? Kind of apt...

  • 2.
  • At 02:44 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Munaf wrote:

Hi Rory,

the best there is is Wincey... can't use the O i'm afraid.


  • 3.
  • At 03:04 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Scarbulous Addict wrote:

I joined facebook for scrabulous and it's one of the only reasons I go back, day in day out. I bought 2 new scrabbles for christmas presents and dug out our old set too. Hasbro and Mattell are doing the clever marketing ploy of getting free advertising in the news. Salad Cream was the same kind of thing (it's being withdrawn, it's being withdrawn, oh no it's not because of the public outcry)

  • 4.
  • At 03:07 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Squatter wrote:

I found Scrabulous unusable anyway - it was far too flaky, crashing continually (I assume due to the number of people that were using it) and it took me about 10 tries to successfully submit each move.

I played one "round" of games on it then rejected all other invites to start a new game.

No great loss unless they were looking to seriously ramp up it's capacity.

I spy the first high profile Facebook App acquisition.

Personally I'd play it as WINCE then play YO down after the E as the next move. So you get points for WINCEY as well as YO.

Although YINCE is quite nice followed by a WO down to the N, especially if it's going to win you the game.

  • 7.
  • At 04:00 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Ian wrote:

There is a facebook group 'Don't let them ban Scrabulous!' to petition against the ban.

  • 8.
  • At 04:08 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Fred wrote:

If Hasbro/Mattel would just embrace the 21st century and give the world the scrabble, risk and other games they want, there wouldn't be any issues. Party games are played on work time these days.

Playing Scrabulous on Facebook reminded me of how much fun Scrabble can be, so I immediately went out and bought the board game....

Hi the best I can come up with is

  • 11.
  • At 04:36 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Yvonne wrote:

Scrabulous is addictive, and you do forget to feed the kids, go to work ( or do any work when you play it there lol) feed the animals, remember you have relationships etc, but its brilliant, ive had upto 16 games on the go at once, and boy its kept my last few remaining braincells on alert. Its done wonders for my spelling, its made me get the kids scrabble board out again, so its benefitted them also. But its the ability to play with people from all over the world thats alluring, there of course are the 'strange' internet types we all meet and hate, but there are some wonderful genuine people out there that ive met and have as friends, some of which are housebound so its a lifeline for them! Since they fixed all the errors and the slowness its awesome! and i know i for one wud be devastated if it was closed down, its just about all i really do online anymore!
If the worst came to the worst surely a sensible option for Hasbro would be to take it over themselves and make money from the adverts themselves.
Whatever they do just dont take our game away or we will all be attending Scabble annonymous meetings! lol

  • 12.
  • At 04:38 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • David wrote:

If you had to start a game to get pictures for TV, why is the photo here from AFP?

  • 13.
  • At 04:51 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • brian sheard wrote:

i would have thought scrabulous was the best free advertising Hasbro/Matell could ever get for their game.

  • 14.
  • At 04:59 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Robert wrote:

Don't patents and copyrights expire after 70 years? And if Scrabble was first published in 1938, doesn't that mean that this year, the time is up for Scrabble? So is this a last attempt to sell Hasbro and Mattell branded Scrabble boards before every board game manufacturer on the planet can start selling their own Scrabble boards legally? Or am I completely wrong?

  • 15.
  • At 05:01 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Tom Huxley wrote:

I can scarcely believe they didnt get the rights to Scrabble before selling advertising. That's just stupid business. Mattel and Hasbro are perfectly within their rights to tell them to take it off; Scrabulous is making money out of their intellectual property, and they're not seeing a penny of it. This is exactly what the writers' strike in America is about.

  • 16.
  • At 05:01 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Bhasker wrote:

''But my point is that, as Google has already found, the early dreams of being a happy-clappy, open-source, “do no evil” kind of business soon fade when the realisation dawns that you are worth suing.''

I really don't see how this statement works. Google isn't 'happy-clappy', they use and contribute to 'open-source' and they still try to 'do no evil'. They've been sued but this hasn't stopped them being an important part of the open-source community. It's a shame you've chosen to link the term 'happy-clappy' with open-source and with Google.

The rest of your post is pretty OK, but the bit about Google and open-source make no sense.

You might want to examine the whole issue of IP rights and how Hasbro could have worked this better - e.g. charged a licensing fee from the Agarwalla brothers - instead of just suing. There's an issue here that deserves a lot more investigation.

  • 17.
  • At 05:02 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Robert wrote:

Don't patents and copyrights expire after 70 years? And if Scrabble was first published in 1938, doesn't that mean that this year, the time is up for Scrabble? So is this a last attempt to sell Hasbro and Mattell branded Scrabble boards before every board game manufacturer on the planet can start selling their own Scrabble boards legally? Or am I completely wrong?

  • 18.
  • At 05:08 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Steve wrote:

By a weird coincidence I only discovered scarbulous last night via a website about anagrams. I've never visited facebook. The game was quite clearly a blatant copy of scrabble and as such I was surprised that it was allowed to operate by the owners of scrabble. Thus this news is no surprise, and quite frankly someone deserves to be sued. Just because it's fun to play doesn't mean that this kind of parasitism of other preoples intellectual property is OK, doubly so if the perasites are profiting from it. Close them down or come to a licencing deal with the owners...

It's amazing how little traditional businesses understand the web.

Scrabulous on Facebook is a boon to Mattel and Hasbro not a threat.

1) Millions of people have trialled scrabble - at no cost to them
2) Half a million people have become to a greater or lesser degree, scrabble fans and scrabble addicts
3) These are all people to whom they should be marketing their most expensive collector's boards, travel kits and genuine Scrabble merchandise

They should do a deal with the scrabulous guys and market to the audience. They'll never have a better opportunity. Of course, they can choose to annoy and disappoint millions of people who are queueing up to love them; but that just seems rather foolish.

I did some analysis using Hitwise internet usage data, and it seems that Hasbro has missed a trick here. Scrabulous has become the default online version of Scrabble - at least in comsumers minds. Twice as many people searching for 'scrabble' go to the Scrabulous site as go to the official Scrabble site.

There is some more in depth analysis here:

  • 21.
  • At 06:22 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • J wrote:

Mark Zuckerberg stole the original idea and code for facebook from ConnectU and it is now a data mining and surveillance service. Thus, doing no evil was never part of the gameplan and Scrabulous is no different in the theft of ideas, though I have much less sympathy for Hasbro/Mattel than I do for the ConnectU team. If Hasbro/Mattel were smart, they'd have set up a similar service a long time ago.

  • 22.
  • At 06:33 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Adrian Wrigley wrote:

The Tradmark owners of Scrabble(tm) are surely threatening Scrabulous(tm) with a violation of the Scrabble trademark?

There may also be trademark rights in the distinctive appearance of a game. Surely Hasbro/Mattel are making a *trademark* case? Any copyright case would be in addition to a basic trademark case.

Whenever IP issues arise on the BBC, they shows a complete ignorance of the distinctions between patent, trademark and copyright rules. Could the BBC *please* always clarify which intellectual property right or rights are the subject of cases like this in future? Thanks!

  • 23.
  • At 07:23 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Jude Kirkham wrote:

Those cursed cheating programs are a far greater threat to scrabble than Facebook. Those were what put me off Yahoos "Literati" after all. Presumeably Yahoo came to some sort of understanding with Hasbro as I do not recall them being sued.

  • 24.
  • At 07:41 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Rohan wrote:

I hope this is just a PR stunt for Hasbro/Mattel in order to remind the world they exist, otherwise they really are shooting themselves in the foot.

The simple fact is that the online Scrabulous application and the original board game have different target markets (although there will be a significant overlap). That is to say, playing Scrabulous is not a replacement for Scrabble in its original context, and being able to play online would not stop anyone from buying the 'real' game - in fact it only serves to increase brand awareness. No group of friends in the same place would choose to play online rather than get a board out.

As Greg states above, if Mattel/Hasbro have any sense they will recognise the work these chaps have done and the massive opportunity they have created on their behalf. Just imagine how much they would have had to pay an advertising firm to drum up the same level of international demand for a 70-year old board game!

  • 25.
  • At 07:58 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Joanne wrote:

Not good news! I love playing Scrabulous on Facebook - and also on the general Scrabulous site, with my mum, who isn't on Facebook. But then Mum and I are already confirmed Scrabble addicts and I think there are three or possibly four sets at home (an old one, a deluxe one, and one or two travel sets). So it's not like we haven't given our money to Hasbro/Mattel anyway. I suspect we're not alone in that. A licensing deal would surely be the best outcome for everyone here.

I agree, wincey is the best you can do with those letters. But I think Silas's suggestion of reserving the Y is risky - who knows what your opponent has and also what letters you're getting next round?

  • 26.
  • At 07:58 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Paul wrote:

The old "happy clappy do no evil" chestnut about the humble, kind hearted entrepreneur motivated solely to "create something cool, man that like brings people together, dude and we can share, bro" is pure fantasy.

You are either being sarcastic or incredibly naive. Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc. have always been and always will be motivated by money above all else.

Google's "first, don't be evil" charade lasted until we found out how they manipulate search results for cash and how they snoop through gmail correspondence.

You are aware of the lawsuits stemming from Google failing to disclose that they use private gmail correspondence for marketing and solicitation purposes and harvest the incoming and outgoing email addresses? But of course that's not "evil" - it is the benevolent Google striving to provide a "richer user experience" for all of us.

Intellectual property theft is theft and copying other's ideas is far from original. I too am a capitalist but unlike some utopian journalists or selfish consumers who thought shutting down Napster "was a total crime, dude 'cuz those record companies are too rich, man!" I respect intellectual property and make no apologies that my business makes money. I also fully disclose to my customers precisely how their private data is secured and I, perhaps stupidly, don't spam my customers or sell their data.

Let's see what happens if I start putting my name on the syndicated columns or books written by some well known journalists and calling it mine OR maybe covering the original songs from some garage bands. Hmmm...not so happy clappy now, huh? I'd give that about 45 minutes before BBC unleashes legal hell and damnation upon me.

  • 27.
  • At 09:56 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Kyuu wrote:

Out of the many applications mushrooming into Facebook -- Scrabulous happens to be one of the most useful. As for Hasbro/Mattel, they demonstrate that old business needs to be replaced by new business.

  • 28.
  • At 10:32 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Rachel wrote:

Shame, the fun and vaguely useful applications will go, leaving us with aquariums and 'what animal do i feel like?'

  • 29.
  • At 10:52 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Adam Liversage wrote:

Scrabulous is easily the best thing about Facebook. For me, it's rapidly become the main reason to log in to Facebook and has massively ignited interest in Scrabble amongst friends.

There is, however, a dark side to Scrabulous that has made me recently consider retiring from playing it - the proliferation of online cheating websites which have sprung up in parallel to 'assist' those players too weak to resist them.

Only a proper face-to-face game of Scrabble can now allay my paranoia that my opponents are cheating. And if everyone is cheating, then surely the real 'game' becomes more about who can find and implement the most powerful cheating applications.

  • 30.
  • At 11:05 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Gareth S wrote:

In response to Tom Huxley post 15. There is a big difference between this and the writers strike, Scrabble will also be making money off this by increased sales and brand awareness.

In my point of view scrabble have benefited hugely from this, and as many people have commented, traditional business's have to catch up with times, internet is here to stay.

By closing scrabulous it will spawn hundreds of new sites. Look what happened when Napster was shut and TVlinks taken offline.

  • 31.
  • At 01:11 AM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • anirban wrote:

i visit facebook multiple times every day, only to play scrabulous. not only is it fun, but by allowing me to play with friends i haven't met for twenty years, it generates a whole lot of goodwill from me towards both brands. as a consumer i'll be very dismayed if this injunction comes through. as a professor of marketing, though, i'll be happy to use it as another in-class example of the cluelessness of certain brand managers.

  • 32.
  • At 01:42 AM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • Raccoon wrote:

Such a silly move by Hasbro and Mattel without even thinking of (or discussing with) their shareholders first.

Scrabulous is an untappable market; played by people who primarily have little or no expendable cash. Instead of suing, dismantling, or trying to buy... these companies should appreciate what's Scrabulous is doing at face value. It's getting kids addicted to a game that many have never played before, and who will eventually buy the real thing when they discover it missing from their physical lives.

Scrabulous is a terrorist training ground for the real thing.

  • 33.
  • At 01:48 AM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • Raccoon wrote:

Another thought just popped into my head.

Seeing as many who play Scrabulous complain about the proliferation of dictionary cheating in the game, it would probably be in Hasbro and Mattel 's best interest to "leave it alone" and wait for players to get fed up and just buy the [real] game... realizing that the only way to play a fair game is to play it in person.

If, however, these companies choose to buy up the game, or fashion one of their own, they will inherit the liability of these cheats and become responsible for solving the unsolvable.

Pretty nasty design flaw flaw for a fortune 500 company to get mixed up with. I'd certainly demand a refund.

  • 34.
  • At 01:37 PM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • David wrote:

Surely playing a game online where its so plainly easy to cheat using the net is kinda pointless anyway??

Does anyone think for a minute that Hasbro won't have thought about putting such a simple game online? And thought, its easy to cheat so whats the point?

Get over it and go and play one of the millions of other online games.

  • 35.
  • At 07:49 PM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • jem wrote:

Love Scrabulous, love Scrabble, starting to dislike Mattel.

I agree it is their trademark and the game is their property, but they should have attempted an agreement with the Scrabulous guys before going to court. They will win, Scrabulous will be pulled and 600,000 people will be disappointed and will know the brand that did it. Not great PR.

It is usually pretty obvious if someone uses a cheat site. Then one can decide whether to keep playing them or not. Most of my friends I think are honest players!

  • 36.
  • At 04:19 AM on 18 Jan 2008,
  • Tami Norris wrote:

Didn't Scrabulous evolve from Bingo Binge? Seems I have been playing this online for several years. Hasbro had to know about it so why pursue it now? Why wait so long? If they truly felt it was a violation of IP than they would have jumped on it right away. Seems to me that with the various versions and additions to the game, the scrabulous version is different enough from the original to keep it safe.

  • 37.
  • At 05:12 AM on 18 Jan 2008,
  • Billy wrote:

Facebook? There are a million zillion websites out there where you can do this kind of stuff. I still don't get why it cooler to do it through Facebook than just to go to and play there (if such a site exists of course).
Some of my friends have already been made fools of on Facebook, unbeknownst to them until it's too late of course.
No good having a 'private' account if you have your list of 'friends' visible to everyone, and half of them may have 'public' profiles. It kinda defeats the purpose. The quickest, easiest, less time wasting way of communicating is this new thing I found. It's called email.

  • 38.
  • At 01:18 PM on 18 Jan 2008,
  • Matt Whitby wrote:

I'd certainly not use FaceBook if it wasn't for Scrabulous.

  • 39.
  • At 07:59 AM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • john strick wrote:

Can anyone refresh my memory as to the list of two letter words allowed under the official Scrabble rules.
My new set doesn't have them.

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