This I Believe

Thom - Pleasant Gap, Pennsylvania
Entered on March 3, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30

NEW DELHI — The latest bane of office productivity is Scrabulous, a virtual knockoff of the Scrabble board game, with over 700,000 players a day and nearly three million registered users.

The extremely popular game Scrabulous is played primarily on the Facebook social-networking site.

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Fans of the game are obsessive. They play against friends, co-workers, family members and strangers, and many have several games going at once.

Everyone seems to love the online game — everyone, that is, except the companies that own the rights to Scrabble: Hasbro, which sells it in North America, and Mattel, which markets it everywhere else.

In January, they denounced Scrabulous as piracy and threatened legal action against its creators, two brothers in Calcutta named Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla who run a software development company. Both Hasbro and Mattel said they were hoping for a solution that would not force them to shut down the game.

Jayant Agarwalla, 21, said they did not create Scrabulous to make money, even though they now collect about $25,000 a month from online advertising. They just wanted to play Scrabble on their computers, and their favorite (unauthorized) site had started charging, he said.

“Our family has been playing the game for 50 years now,” he said, and received a set when the game first came out in India. His mother encouraged him and his 26-year-old brother, Rajat, to play as a learning tool, often with a dictionary by the board.

Scrabulous, which most users play on the Facebook social-networking site, has a board that looks just like Scrabble, and the same number of letter tiles with the same point values. Players can send invitations to others on Facebook or search for strangers to play with by posting messages.

There is no time limit for moves or games. Scrabulous keeps track of player statistics, and it does not allow fake words. It cannot, however, prevent players from cheating. One method is an unaffiliated online “helper” program, which generates a list of possible words based on the letters a user has.

Two game companies, RealNetworks of Seattle and Electronic Arts of Redwood City, Calif., say they have signed deals with Hasbro to create online versions of the company’s games. Both say their versions of Scrabble will be out shortly. But Scrabulous has already brought Scrabble a newfound virtual popularity that none of the game companies could have anticipated.

The threat of legal action has not gained the companies many admirers. Many Scrabulous fans, some of whom say they bought the board game for the first time after playing the online version on Facebook, call their approach heavy-handed and out of touch.

“The big thing that Hasbro is missing is that this is targeting a young audience that in general is not into board games,” said Venkat Koduru, the 15-year-old founder of the Facebook group “Save Scrabulous.”

Mr. Koduru had three Scrabulous games going as of Wednesday. He has gathered names of more than 1,000 people who have pledged to never buy a Scrabble board if Hasbro and Mattel shut down the online game.

Other groups devoted to saving the game have recently been created on Facebook, including “Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous Too.” Tens of thousands of fans have joined in, threatening to boycott Hasbro and Mattel products.

Iain Morgan, 34, a music producer in London who goes by the name Iain Easy, is playing 25 games of Scrabulous at the same time. The funny thing is, he said, he was never a fan of the original board game.

Mr. Morgan, who is the host of a Facebook group called “Help, I’m a Scrabulous Addict,” attributes the game’s popularity to “all these people who are bored at work in their office,” and added that the game keeps him in regular contact with his mother.

The legal questions concerning Scrabulous are complicated by the interests of the companies that own the rights to Scrabble.

Harold Zeitz, senior vice president for games at RealNetworks, said Friday that he was working closely with the Agarwalla brothers to bring the official Scrabble game to Facebook users.

Hasbro, meanwhile, said in a statement that Electronic Arts was planning to release an online version of Scrabble this spring. And Mattel, which signed a deal with RealNetworks last July, says that settling with the Agarwallas would set a bad precedent.

Neither Hasbro nor Mattel would disclose the number of Scrabble board games they have sold since Scrabulous started becoming popular last year. Hasbro estimates it sells one million to two million Scrabble boards a year in North America.