James Wallis levels with you


Here, in three short Q&As, are what annoys me about the Scrabulous mess.

Q1. What is the difference between Scrabble and Scrabulous?
A1. The name has been slightly changed. That’s it. The rules are identical, in meaning if not in wording. The tile-distribution is identical. The board-design is identical, right down to the colours used for the special squares. Scrabulous is not a knock-off, a derivative design, an homage or an iterative improvement on an existing model: it is Scrabble.

Q2. Should Hasbro and/or Mattel have the right to close down Scrabulous?
A2. If you listen to the internet, no. People give many reasons, from half-understandings of trademark and copyright law, to the fact that Scrabulous is a better internet implementation of Scrabble than Hasbro and/or Mattel has so far produced. But almost nobody is saying that Hasbro/Mattel is in the right to do what they are doing. This includes a number of games designers for whose opinions I previously had some respect, and who seem to be treating the whole thing as an exercise in speculating whether it’s now safe to produce unauthorised supplements for D&D4e.

Q3. So what you’re saying is that my work as a game designer should have no protection at all? If I design a game, anyone can take it, produce an exact copy of it and make money from that—money reckoned at around $US25,000 a month in the case of Scrabulous—without acknowledging my existence? In other words my work should have none of the protection given to authors, journalists, artists, graphic designers, industrial designers, clothes designers, architects, photographers, film-makers, programmers, cartoonists, bloggers and anyone else involved in any area of design or creativity? I should have less protection and control of my work than Siegel and Schuster had over Superman, or Jack Kirby had over any of the characters that he created and that went on to make billions of dollars for Marvel Comics? I am lower on the creative food-chain than work-made-for-hire? Is that actually what you are saying? Oh how the internet howls when someone dares to steal a Flickr feed or a blog template, or a cartoon on a tee-shirt, or a couple of paragraphs of someone else’s text. But games? Games, it seems, are fair game.

Q4. Well?

Addendum: My wife, an avid Facebook user, just came into the bedroom where I am lying with what I think is tonsilitis though I’ve had no tonsils since I was five, and asked what I was writing. I gave her a rough outline of the Scrabulous affair. “Oh” she said. “I play Scrabulous. I thought it was by the people who make Scrabble.” Point to our side, I think.

Categorised as: Uncategorized


  1. Peter Darby says:

    Well, I’ll take the work of the games designers saying Hasbro have no rights, put up PDF’s of their stuff available to read through facebook. But I’ll change a couple of letters in the title.

    Come play Bungeons & Bragons (covered under the B20 OBL).

    Hell, I’ll even charge for it. It’s only a game.

    (Getting very depressed by the “You can’t copyright a game” morons. You can, however, copyright and even trademark a board layout, probably patent a letter mix, a scoring schema… God knows there’s been enough “Letter tile on a board” games to show that, sure, the general concept is not covered, and furthermore, NOT THE POINT. THEY. COPIED. THE . WHOLE. GAME.)

    (And furthermore, all the knockoffs are crap. Upwords my arse).

  2. Ian Sturrock says:

    Q2 is clearly a matter for the courts to decide — but as is often the case, in the meantime, the side with the most clout gets to do most of what it wants (AFAIK legal proceedings haven’t started yet). Hasbro probably have the right to get Scrabulous shut down, though it’s been something of a foot-shooting exercise for them so far — the more interesting question, IMO, is whether it’s a good idea for them to shut it down.

    Regarding Q3, the inventor of Scrabulous has been dead for 15 years; he sold the rights to the game 60 years ago, & it’s changed hands (in the US) three times since then, including once through bankruptcy. I don’t see that this is about “game designers’ IP rights” as much as it’s about “one large corporation’s ineptness & ability to dissuade lots of customers from buying its game.”

    India, like most other developing countries, has been screwed enough by big companies from the West that I really have no objection at all to the Scrabulous guys making $25,000 a month by ripping off Scrabble. It’s a very small amount of payback, not entirely dissimilar to the developing country companies that sell copies of patented medicines without licences.

    I might have more sympathy for Hasbro if I thought there was any chance of their treating creatives as anything other than cash cows, but as it is, as far as I’ve seen, they’re no better in that regard than the music industry (and certainly worse than Hollywood).

    Yes, Scrabulous copied the whole game… except for the text of the rules, and the text on the tiles, and the triangular flashes around the special letter squares, and some of the colour scheme. The interesting question from an IP perspective is, if the rules of the game are so close to being common knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people can play without needing to refer to them… well, doesn’t that suggest that in the past 60 years, the game has started to pass close to something like the public domain, in effect if not in law? I’m not convinced that Butts would care that much, if he were still alive at 108.

  3. Gary Barker says:

    Have you taken a look at the games shelf in your local Woolworths? Isn’t that proof enough that you cannot copyright/trademark/patent a game. And if the tile distribution is a reasonable approximation of the distribution in some written text then you’d be hard pushed to claim protection over that. The one things they’ll possibly stumble on is that the board is almost identical to the Hasbro print and the name is clearly a hint at the original.

    I’m not sure what Trademarks Hasbro are trying to protect, but they are certainly in the right (in fact they pretty much have to) if any are likely to be lost through letting Scrabbulous continue.

    Have a go at Bungeons and Bragons if you like, but the whole point on that one is that its pretty text heavy, and text can certainly be copyrighted. You’ll have fun coming up with a meaningful way to display all those lookup tables without using the same format as the original :)

  4. Rebecca Paliwoda says:

    To my eyes, Scrabulous is a clone of Scrabble. I don’t know whether it could be considered to be in the same vein as casual games like Bejewelled and all its very-identically-ruled clones, for example, but evidently someone somewhere doesn’t think so. It looks much the same to me, but I know I probably don’t know enough to be able to tell the difference between one and the other, aside from one involving Hasbro and Mattel, and one not.
    Maybe it’s the graphics…? But that just seems so very superficial.

    However, nothing there changes that Scrabulous is still by far the more popular of the three Scrabble applications at Facebook. Scrabble WORLDWIDE (GameHouse), for non-US, non-Canada people, has eleven thousand active users. SCRABBLE Beta (Electronic Arts), for the US and Canada, has fifty thousand active users. Both applications have just over 200 reviews to them, and a very large portion of the reviews rate the applications with one star out of five, the lowest possible rating. If reviews for each are to be taken as representative of the users, a very large portion of those sixth thousand people are dissatisfied with the two applications. (Legitimate) complaints for both applications range from being unable to challenge people in the OTHER part of the world from the respective usable application, ugliness compared to Scrabulous, slowness, to just not functioning at all.
    (Illegitimate complaints being random spam, promote boycotting Mattel and/or Hasbro, seem to be general chatter (?), or are chain-letters, amongst other stuff.)

    Contrastingly, the Scrabulous application still has over five hundred thousand active users – I don’t know if that still includes the US and Canada peoples who no longer have access to it – and of its 300 reviews, most rate it at four or five stars. There are complaints and non-reviews amongst those scores, but far less in comparison to the official Scrabble apps.

    I’m not going to get in a huff about it, so I’m not going to do anything silly like refuse to play Scrabble entirely, as I enjoy playing it with my family, but I’m not going to be removing Scrabulous from my list of applications until Facebook prevents UK users from playing it entirely. Whether or not Hasbro and Mattel have the right, and whether or not they should have the right after failing to replace Scrabulous then and there with something just as good.

  5. Giles Williams says:

    Scrabulous is an exact copy of Scrabble. Scrabble is 80 years old.

    When should this idea of copyright which protects the creator’s right to profit from an idea, revert to its legal corollary, being the right of everyone to benefit freely from the idea?

    AFAIR the limit for literary creations is 75 years although as IANAL I may very well be mistaken.

    I am all for you (and other talented people like you) having every right to protection from those who would unfairly seek to profit from the sweat of your brow, but at the same time I would prefer not to see that protection deny our descendants broader access to your work.

    Would you argue that your intellectual property is yours in perpetuity?

  6. james says:

    Scrabble is 70 years old, not 80, and literary and artistic copyright is 70 years from the death of the author. Apart from that, good point: copyright law is an unholy mess, and limits should be more tightly drawn. But the one argument I’ve not seen made anywhere in the Scrabulous case is that Scrabble had fallen into the public domain.

  7. David Dunham says:

    I think the licensed Scrabble game my coworkers developed, , is pretty good. (Warning: due to the rights situation, only people outside North America can access this. I hope this includes James’s wife.)

  8. Dave Rickey says:

    One simple reason why game designers may not give a damn about the IP rights on their games (or anyone else’s): We never have any. We *are* work for hire. We have none of the protections given to “authors, journalists, artists, graphic designers, industrial designers, clothes designers, architects, photographers, film-makers, programmers, cartoonists, bloggers and anyone else involved in any area of design or creativity”.

    Sometimes you’ll have equity, and some companies may pay bonuses and/or profit-sharing as long as you are still employed (and they don’t change ownership or decide they need the money for something else). But royalties based on creativity? Maybe Wil Wright has something like that in his contract, but I would doubt it even there, I expect if he ever leaves EA he’ll never see another dime from anything he made for them. Certainly that’s the standard, even in the *extremely* rare event you’re getting anything but your salary to begin with.

  9. Giles Williams says:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Your point about the public domain is probably the point here. If Scrabulous ‘wins’ then it could certainly be claimed that Scrabble’s mechanics had fallen into the public domain – essentially allowing any producer of a copy of the game to profit from it.

    Whether that would be a good thing or not would depend on your point of view.

    Speaking personally – I like to play Scrabble. Scrabulous was/is the best way to play online, and it’s a mighty shame that it is disappearing. Its worse that the very legal points that Hasbro legitimately make prevent it from copying the features that make Scrabulous so popular.

    And even more personally – gosh it’s been a long long time since we’ve crossed paths online or off. I recall being very wrong in discussions about Wormy and having misappropriated an illustration from Once Upon A Time. It’s always good to read your work, James.

  10. Stephen Johnson says:

    (off the main topic)
    James: it may, in fact, be tonsilitis. I too had them removed as a youngster, but it is possible – though unuisual – for the stumps to get wicked inflammations, as I found ourt a few years ago. Interestingly enough – to me at least – it could also be Stephen Johnson’s disease, I kid you not!

    So, like, go see your doctor, Dude!

  11. james says:

    Stephen, I’ve had post-tonsillectomy tonsillitis before, so I know the perils. However things seem much better today, but I am grateful for your concern and advice. I am also in awe of anyone who shares their name with a disease (my old friend Penny Sillen notwithstanding)… a disappointing Google search turns up no Wallis diseases, only a discussion about contraceptive fraud in New Mexico last century.

  12. […] can’t understand what copyright means then you don’t deserve to play games.” And James Wallis agrees. Random Battle on the other hand thinks it was lame of Hasbro to close it down. We have conflicting […]

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