In the high school cafeteria of Facebook apps, Scrabulous is like that girl who gets in trouble for showing too much skin, only to throw on a hoodie and be let back into the principal's good graces. Sort of. The game has effectively returned, but with a redesigned board, a few original play options, a different points tabulation system, and a new name, Wordscraper.
Props to Adam Ostrow of Mashable for picking up on this one early.
The Facebook application Scrabulous had been taken down by its creators earlier this week when Hasbro, the game manufacturer that owns the rights to Scrabble in the U.S. and Canada, pointed out that Scrabulous was a near copy. Few disagreed with the allegation, but many loyal Scrabulous fans wondered why Hasbro couldn't have struck a deal instead of insisting upon a shutdown, especially as the "real" Scrabble game on Facebook succumbed to technical difficulties.
The reason for Scrabulous' extreme makeover has its roots in some pretty gray legal matters: the real problem wasn't that it ripped off Scrabble, but that it ripped off Scrabble so blatantly. The colors of the board were the same, the list of rules led to a Wikipedia entry for Scrabble rules, and the two names were similar enough for Hasbro to cry foul.
On Wednesday I spoke to Pete Kinsella, a partner at the Faegre & Benson law firm who specializes in intellectual property, and he gave me his take on the gritty details. "Copyrights are not supposed to protect board games," Kinsella explained. "What copyrights protect is the expression of an idea rather than the idea itself."
Returning as Wordscraper is a way for its creators to keep the game running while avoiding legal complaints. In effect, it's just different enough.
"I think there's a very fine line to walk in this one, and the question is whether Scrabulous went over the line or not in mimicking the colors or everything else," Kinsella assessed (keep in mind that we had this conversation before the advent of Wordscraper), "or whether they could've designed a generic version of the game with the same points system and scoring system, and that would've fallen out of Hasbro's copyrights."
So will this end the legal spat? Maybe. If Kinsella's analysis proves accurate, this is probably enough to keep Hasbro's lawyers away. Many other games on Facebook bear strong-but-not-too-strong resemblances to board games like Battleship and Risk, but so far haven't encountered the same corporate scrutiny.
"The law allows people to design around things, and particularly when there isn't patent protection, the law has great incentive to design around things by making things somewhat different," Kinsella said.
Or, for a less digital example, think about all those detergent bottle logos that look suspiciously similar.