Mattel takes on Scrabulous in war of the words

Quietly? Seven letters with a Q on a triple? There you were, with a seemingly insurmountable points lead, when an opponent puts down "Quietly" and suddenly it is anyone's game again.

Mattel, one of two companies that own the rights to Scrabble, just laid its bingo in the complicated tactical battle against Scrabulous – a copycat version that, on the one hand, appears to brazenly infringe its trademark but, on the other, has hooked a new generation of young players and procrastinating office workers to the age-old word game.

Quietly, Mattel has launched its own official version of online Scrabble for the wildly popular Facebook social networking site.

Scrabulous is the online sensation of the past year, attracting 3.3 million players and making it the most successful game launched on Facebook. Some 625,000 people play every day and the creators, two Indian games enthusiasts, now make about $20,000 (£10,100) a month in revenue from advertising that appears alongside the game.

That has infuriated Mattel. It has also made Hasbro mad. The two toy companies split the rights to the game, with Hasbro controlling North America and Mattel owning the rest of the world. They have also licensed the rights to online versions of the game to programme developers RealNetworks and Electronic Arts. None of these official licence holders gets any money from Scrabulous, and all fret that it is stopping them making any money from their official paid-for online versions. In January, Hasbro and Mattel sent a "cease and desist" letter to the brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, who only created the game so they had a way to play for free after their favourite Scrabble website started charging.

But the threat to shut down Scrabulous has angered its obsessed players. Some 51,700 people have joined the Save Scrabulous group on Facebook, urging them to petition Hasbro and Mattel to lay off the legal guns. Others have begun agitating for a boycott of Hasbro and Mattel products. There is little doubt this had become a publicity headache for the two companies, and it seems as if Scrabulous was simply too powerful to shut down.

"Scrabble has been entertaining millions of people around the world for 60 years, so we are not surprised that fans have thoroughly enjoyed playing Scrabulous on Facebook," the companies say when angry users contact them.

"What consumers may not realise, however, is that Scrabulous is an illegally copied online version of the world's most popular word game, the copyrights and trademarks for which are owned by Hasbro and Mattel. We encourage fans to continue to lay down online tiles at sites that have legally licensed the interactive rights to host Scrabble fun."

Of course, that is about as plausible as when the record industry politely, and not so politely, asked music fans to please stop sharing albums online instead of paying for them.

So the two sides were faced with a choice: sue Scrabulous and/or Facebook to get the game taken down, leaving addicts bereft, or come to a deal. The length of time that has elapsed shows just how reluctant Mattel and Hasbro are to be seen as the bad guys. There have indeed been talks, and, at the weekend, Jayant Agarwalla told Canadian television all sides were still "working towards an amicable resolution ... one that will keep users happy".

But the launch in recent days by Mattel of an official Scrabble on Facebook appears to be significant. RealNetworks, the developers, had originally promised to work with Scrabulous; the launch of a rival game appears to signal a new strategy. If you can't join them, beat them.

The differing rights of RealNetworks and Electronic Arts and of Mattel and Hasbro complicate the picture, and so far the official Scrabble by Mattel is available only to non-North American Facebook users. It has barely 2,000 users and is still in a raw, trial, version that has users complaining about bugs in the system. EA is yet to launch its promised version of the game. But if these two rivals can take a dent out of Scrabulous, perhaps win over some of those users, then it may not need a deal with Scrabulous at all. Shutting down Scrabulous is a PR disaster when 625,000 people have nowhere else to go; less so, when they do.

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