The Blog

Stop Mattel from Removing Scrabulous!

With Facebook came Scrabulous, an interactive way to play Scrabble. Mattel, the corporation that has the rights to the beloved board game, has asked Facebook to remove it.
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Though I've somehow ended up as a professional writer, I never enjoyed Scrabble as a kid. I found it too wonky, or maybe I just had too small an attention span--when I had free time from music or words, I preferred to let my mind, well, rest. Figuring out the exact place to drop a word like "Fanworts" so that I could "achieve a righteous bingo" as my school's Scrabble fanatics liked to say, didn't seem like fun to me.

But then, a few months ago, I began writing an article about social networks, which led, of course, to my having to join Facebook. I don't blame anyone else for what comes next. But yes, like most of America, I became quickly obsessed with Facebook, especially because I had a lot of time on the road, in isolation. Far be it for me to read more than I had to for work--I could figure out what German philosopher I think like--well, according to whatever college sophomore created said quiz.

But with Facebook came Scrabulous, an interactive way to play Scrabble with your "friends" wherein you were also given a list of all the geeky two-letter scrabble words and a game board that wouldn't allow you to throw down an invalid word as well as a way to look some words up. In fact, you could even throw down a word you didn't know as long as it worked. Say, Amu: the name I gave myself as a toddler. Apparently, amu is a word, according to Scrabulous dictionaries, which are close but a little looser than Scrabble dictionaries. I use "amu" all the time now. And I still haven't bothered looking it up. I've also used the word "speedo" much to my editor-friend's chagrin. And I'm not cheating. This is the Scrabble for me, I decided. I can play this. I can use it to reconnect with true, far-flung friends. And I can win at it! Scrabble is finally fun for me.

But last week, I learned of an extremely sad if predictable piece of news. Reuters is reporting that Mattel, the corporation that has the rights to Scrabble outside the U.S. and Canada, has asked Facebook to remove its Scrabble application. Hasbro, Inc., the company that holds the U.S. and Canadian rights wasn't mentioned in the story. But I'm sure they won't be far behind.

Surely, the makers of Scrabulous, which can be played over the Internet or through e-mail--i.e. you don't need to use Facebook to play it--were aware of this impending problem. But I don't see how it can't be rectified much in the same way that a thousand companies make Tetris clones. Does a company that owns the rights to Scrabble own the rights to the idea of the word game? According to Wikipedia--purveyor of all accurate information--Scrabble is also known as: The game is also known as "Alfapet, Funworder, Skip-A-Cross, Spelofun and Palabras Cruzadas" throughout the world.

In fact, when Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game in 1938, he created a challenge based on another: an older word-related game he had fashioned called "Lexico." It was then sold to a Connecticut lawyer, then to other game manufacturers. (Parker Brothers rejected the game!). And it's even been a daytime gameshow hosted by none other than Chuck Woolery.

But but no one owns the game. I find that an impossibility. Maybe certain companies own the rights to Scrabble's name and certain words for techniques used in that game. But at this point in time, this word game we're discussing should be considered a public-domain challenge. Much in the way a crossword puzzle isn't owned by anyone. Scrabble is a form--has become a form. It isn't just a product. And you can't claim ownership to a form. Well, you could try, but that just wouldn't be cool.

Upon hearing this news, many of my friends contacted me, including one prominent computer software executive: What are you going to do now? she asked. She knew of my obsession. My answer? Create a Facebook group promoting a new way to play. Scrabulous has certainly brought me a lot of time-killing joy over the last few months. But it's also given me a whole new and improved way to procrastinate, which is part and parcel of the writer's trade. In the past, when I was trying to avoid work, I'd watch a film, play a sport, or sit by my pool listening to music. I might even sit and do nothing. And that's not the same as meditate. I'd rarely engage my mind. But Scrabulous has given me a way to procrastinate that makes me a better writer. I can now drop "fanwort," "luteolin," or any of my recent lucky bingos into conversation and yes, my current writing assignments.

I'm the most unlikely Scrabble devotee you're ever going to meet. But that's exactly why the Scrabble community should heed my call. It's the form they love, and the online version of this game only builds love for said form. In fact, I now want to play the board game with friends when I have free time. I'm more likely to purchase a fancy, branded Scrabble set. But if Scrabulous leaves Facebook--leaving me to answer one more ridiculous personality quiz or send one more hatching egg gift to a person I see every day anyway--I may not want to continue this new love affair with word games.

I may just retreat to the procrastination of yesteryear and rarely desire to do anything that a lazy writer didn't used to do when he was trying to avoid the next assignment. And wouldn't that be a shame. For my readers, Scrabble, and me.