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e-Scrabble gets Cease and Desist Order from Hasbro 774

Posted by timothy
from the one-of-my-favorite-sites dept.
Matthew Dull writes "Home-brewed e-Scrabble.com recently received a cease-and-desist order from Hasbro Inc., owners of the famous board game Scrabble. E-scrabble, home to over 100,000 active players, has been hosting up online versions of the game to happily addicted players for over a year now (maybe more), and only now does Hasbro come forth with a lawsuit. The creator of the site, known only as Jared, has posted the letter he received from Hasbro's lawyers. However common it may be, it always seems a tragedy when a big corporation stomps its heavy foot on a fledgling but very successful piece of web software that is close to many people's heart." (It's also the best online Scrabble game I've seen; Hasbro should pay Jared, not sue him.)
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e-Scrabble gets Cease and Desist Order from Hasbro

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  • by VisualVoice (592060) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:01PM (#12007251)
    http://isc.ro is the best on-line scrabble site anyway.
  • Is ISC next? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by anthony_dipierro (543308) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:07PM (#12007298) Journal
    What about Internet Scrabble Club [www.isc.ro]? Are they safe because they're outside the US, licensed, or are they next?
  • by Senjutsu (614542) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:09PM (#12007318)
    Actually, while a specific instance (ie, a manual) of the rules is copyrightable, the "idea" of the rules of the game is neither copywritable nor patentable.

    This guy was just asking for trouble by naming the game eScrabble, though.
  • Trademarks (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Supertroll (210165) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:09PM (#12007320) Homepage
    Correct me if I'm wrong but aren't trademark holders required to defend their trademarks or risk losing them? (like what happened with "Aspirin")
  • Re:Copyrightable? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by anthony_dipierro (543308) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:16PM (#12007386) Journal

    What about the board? It seems scrabble could have a copyright on the layout of the board, for instance the locations of the triple word squares.

    Other than that, I'm not sure what non-trivial stuff they could copyright. Maybe the number of tiles of a particular letter, but that's pretty borderline. Of course they can trademark and possible copyright the color schemes and stuff like that, but that's all trivially changed without changing the game itself.

    Oh yeah, and the most definitely copyrightable part is the official dictionary. But it wouldn't be too horrible to use a game with an alternate dictionary.

  • by p0rnking (255997) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:22PM (#12007443) Homepage
    Now i do agree this probably isn't the best way to deal with it, by sending a cease and desist letter, Hasbro does have the right. I'm pretty sure that it's clearly marked on the box, and in the instruction manual that scarbble, it's name and idea are owned by hasboro.

    It's not like they just patented the game, and now are on a manhunt to raise revenue by suing people who have created anything similar to their game.

    If another game company created a game that is pretty much the same thing, and used "scrabble" in the name, would they not be fair game also? If so, then why is the internet and software any different?

    And to top it all off, I'm sure with 100,000+ users, he has to be making a few dollars off of it, which gives hasboro even more reason to go after him.

    But like it says in the summary, Hasboro should have offered him some sort of a deal, I'm sure there's more to gain from it.
  • Uh... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by xstonedogx (814876) <xstonedogx@gmail.com> on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:24PM (#12007467)
    From TFA:

    Today I received the letter below via e-mail. It is not clear if I will have to take the site down or not. I am consulting with a lawyer. Please stay tuned.

    IANAL, but, you're screwed pal. AFAICT, you used their board layout and their layout. You shouldn't be worried about if you will have to take the site down. You should be worried about whether your setttlement with them is going to bankrupt you.
  • by mcguyver (589810) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:27PM (#12007502) Homepage
    >Hasbro should pay Jared, not sue him

    Actually Jared should lease the name Scrable from Hasbro then charge his users to cover that fee...at least that's how the real world works.

    Having the domain name e-scrabble.com was just asking for trouble...
  • Re:Uhhh (Score:2, Interesting)

    by aichpvee (631243) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:29PM (#12007519) Journal
    Actually, copyright laws weren't meant for this kind of thing, because Scrabble has long out-lived the original duration of copyright. Ditto for the Scrabble trademark.
  • Why this is absurd! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:30PM (#12007522)
    This is absurd becuase...

    ...Hasbro is not running their own online game. He's not stealing their online business. They should reward him for creating a market where none existed, and license him the electronic rights to the game at a profit to Hasbro.

    Yeah, right. Maybe in a reasonable world.

  • Happened to me... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jhines0042 (184217) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:40PM (#12007589) Journal
    Seriously. Back in 1995 I had a website up on my schools computer that was for Connect Four. I got calls from Hasbro's lawyers. Of course, once they found out that I didn't make any money on it they stopped returning my calls.

    1000 games played per day in 1995/1996 was pretty good web traffic. The site got its URL published in a kids magazine, complete with a sticker. Great fun.
  • by AtariAmarok (451306) on Monday March 21, 2005 @10:40PM (#12007594)
    More than 10 years ago, something similar happened on IRC. This was when most of IRC was "efnet", and it had only a couple thousand live users at once. There was a popular channel called #jeopardy, that had a well-designed automatic bot-run Jeopardy game anyone could drop in and play.

    The real Jeopardy folks came along, and sooner than you can say "I'll take `Frivolous Lawsuits` for $100, Alex" they ordered #jeopardy to stop.

    The #jeopardy folks changed a few names, called it #Risky Business (or #riskybus ?) and kept going for a while longer. You can see it here [eingang.org]. The screen on the page looks rather Jeopardy-like. So far, I think they have avoided frivolous lawsuits from Tom Cruise.

  • by starwed (735423) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @12:04AM (#12008296)
    Hmm, since I can't edit comments, I must doublepost.

    Someone else posted a link to this [copyright.gov], which appears to state that only certain aspects of a game (the artwork and the written manual from what I can tell) are copyrighted. In fact, it states that:

    "Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in the development, merchandising, or playing of a game."

    Obviously I know nothing about copyright law, but I'm curious as to how this jibes with your comments.
  • Re:y'know (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dnoyeb (547705) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @12:12AM (#12008365) Homepage Journal
    Let me say this.

    My wife loves scrabble and we have played every version hasbro has released on CD. ABSOLUTELY ABYSMAL. Hasbro has managed to get an ok game but the network play is FUCKING ABSOLUTELY HORRENDUS. And thats putting it midly.

    So eventually we found MS games website has scrabble for about a year. Then it went away. Then some other knock off site had it for another year. Then it went away. I think Hasbro released another crap CD. Then after about 2-3 years without online play, we found this one site which I will not mention for obvious reasons. She plays there happily, and I dont have to hear all her complaints about lag, and people disconnecting but not knowing for 15 minutes...

    I guess if you can only make shit computer products, just sue anyone that manages to make a quality one.

    I bet you each of these free scrabble sites Hasbro will shut down, will have created a game of 10x the quality of the Hasbro version, and will have done it for the the same cheap ass price Hasbro is probably paying, + love.

    And the White House will continue to push its idea that Greed is what makes America innovative and strong...
  • Re:Uhhh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shutdown -p now (807394) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @12:26AM (#12008463) Journal
    Would you think it is OK for a site to replicate Half-Life 2 in Java and make money off it?
    Yes, it would, if the engine was written from scratch, and all data files are also clean re-make. After all, Carmack doesn't have anything against FreeDoom, which is exactly that kind of project.

    I can understand how you can own a specific implementation of a game (that is, its code, binaries, and data files), but should you be able to own game concept and rules? I don't think so.

  • by syousef (465911) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @12:35AM (#12008534) Journal
    As someone who practices software development, I have to ask what happens if you externalize all these values.

    Instead of having a set number for the value of a letter, make it a configurable parameter.

    Instead of having a set score added for using all your pieces, make this configurable too.

    Same goes for the board. You can use different graphic sets to draw the squares based on configurable parameters. You can use parameters to specify how large the board is, which squares are word and letter score multipliers, and how many multiples.

    Then only with a particular configuration file would the game be identical to Scrabble.

    You could change the name based on a parameter too for that matter.

    Where would this leave the copyright situation? Would the software still be forfit? Or only the configuration file that makes it identical to scrabble? What if you let users upload their own configuration files, and left it up to the community to set up games based on their own configurations. Would Hasbro then have to sue the individuals for using this man's software to copy their game?

    If you ask me copyright law is an absolute mess in the digital age. Hard as it is, we need to move away from a society where the first person who has an idea can block someone else from using it. Certainly they the people responsible for thinking of it should expect to benefit financially, but they should not be able to take all the benefit from the fruits of an implementor's labour nor block someone else from implementing the idea.

    Copyright, trademark and patent law came about at a time when the ability to make copies was limited, as was education. We now copy things electronically in the blink of an eye, and hopefully overall we're more educated, meaning that several people may think of similiar ideas at the same time.
  • Re:y'know (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @01:05AM (#12008744)
    OK, not a coward, just will never be back to this site again, Allah Willing. Hasbro has a fair amount of my cash. I have three different versions of Scrabble in rather wildly expensive sets. I bought 'em, and I ain't mad. But I think this is just dippy. Really. The games I was palying were quality in my opinion, "official" or not. Some dude below said that he figured "All those people playing probably thought they were playing real Scrabble" It was 'real scrabble'. Just like the poker I played last week was real poker and the euchre I'll play tomorrow nigth will be real euchre. I'm just not paying anyone royalties to do it.
  • by RalphSlate (128202) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @01:23AM (#12008854) Homepage
    Interesting concept, but it's a Pandora's box.

    This may seem off-topic, but bear with me.

    I saw an article in today's Boston Globe about someone who runs a website exposing informants. Anyone can go there and post information about who they feel narc'ed on them.

    FBI gang infiltraitors are posted there. They are being exposed to the criminals because of this. Innocent people are being posted there, and are subject to harrassment and even violence.

    The site founder's position is "I'm not doing the posting, and we strongly discourage retaliation against anyone (wink, wink), and we can do this because we have free speech". He created the site because someone turned him in for dealing drugs (which he was doing).

    That said, such a site is HORRIBLE, because it puts a lot of power into the hands of criminals. Imagine being afraid to testify against a criminal because the criminals will post your information somewhere and the odds are you're going to die.

    Well, a game that is configurable is similar -- although the threat of death is certainly not there. Sure, it might be legal to set up a game so that the user could turn it into Scrabble, but that game would greatly facilitate people to break the law. In fact, you and I both know that such an attempt would merely be an end-run around valid trademark laws.

    It's essentially the "Napster" defense -- "my tool doesn't break any laws, and I can't help it if the people use it to break the law".

    So why do it and ruin things like that. Next thing you know the true hero, the little guy that creates a wildly popular online game called "Babble" is going to have the same crap pulled on him by UltraMultiNationalCorp, Inc. Goliath will use the same weapons against David.

    So why open that door?
  • Re:Uhhh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by roju (193642) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @01:43AM (#12008965)
    I saw Scrabble for sale at a games store not too long ago. Those bastards.

    Really, I agree that I don't find anything particularly suprising or outrageous about this. But you are totally allowed to just copy other people's things and sell 'em. Witness the history of the modern desktop computer [laborlawtalk.com]. In fact, the so-called American way is pretty much based on that fact. Otherwise every new product would be a monopoly and the system would break down pretty fast.
  • Re:Uhhh (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Nataku564 (668188) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @01:44AM (#12008967)
    So, if I go and market a version of Monopoly - but this one is made out of metal, not wood products ... thats perfectly alright.
  • by syousef (465911) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @01:46AM (#12008981) Journal
    So any games made should not be configurable, because someone might use them to emulate a different copyrighted game?

    Knives should never be sold, since they can be used to kill people?

    Books should never be published as they put ideas into young impressionable minds?

    And _I'm_ opening a pandora's box?

    There's a world of difference between enabling someone to do a category of things (eg. manufacturing a knife, file sharing software), some of which might be illegal (eg. stabbing someone to death, downloading copyright material), and actively building something to be used for illegal purposes (eg. the people slayer mark III stabbing knife, setting up a warez torrent).
  • Re:Well... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @02:34AM (#12009265)
    Scrabble's been around for years. Any patent on its gameplay will have long since expired. However, there's probably a patent out there for playing Scrabble on the Internet (or over a network). Such a patent, valid or not, would still be in force.
  • Re:Uhhh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by brlancer (666140) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @03:12AM (#12009461) Homepage Journal
    They'll be lucky if that's all that happens to them. Like the grandparent said; this is why we have copyright law.
    They knew they were gonna get sued from the beginning. You cannot just take someone's idea and drop it verbatum onto the internet and expect to survive.

    Actually, they can. Why? Ideas are an issue of patent law, not copyrights. Hasbro has a copyright on the "game board" and trademark of the name "Scrabble", but they don't own the idea. All the examples you provide are examples of an identical idea.

    Should he stop selling/providing the game "as is"; yes, because he has not paid Hasbro to license it. Should he turn over profits; yes, though I think grabbing all revenue ignores the fact that he made a superior product irrespective to Hasbro's trademarks. Should he re-write the game to avoid Hasbro's copyright and trademark; yes, most people would still play the game and Hasbro might take the clue to produce a better product.

    I wonder how much "confusion" existed over who was offering the game. Unless he was being deliberately deceptive (his site is down so I can't see it), I would presume a "normal person" would recognize this wasn't being presented by Hasbro.

    And forget transfering the domain name; I think he should keep it if only to publicize the problems he's encountered here. That would be legitimate use.

  • Kurnik (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KiloByte (825081) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @03:50AM (#12009612)
    Well... try to give kurnik.{org,pl} [kurnik.org] a slashdotting.

    This site started from exactly the same thing this article is about. Marek Futrega (my roommate at the time) made an implementation of Scrabble in Java.

    Soon, he received a cease-and-desist letter from Cronix (basically Hasbro Poland). What he did, was renaming the game from "Szkrable" to "Literaxx" and changing the copyrighted board to a similar version. This made him compliant with both trademark and copyright laws.

    Now, his site is the biggest Central European (or perhaps even European) gaming site with a crapload of other games in 11 languages.

    The cease-and-desist in Polish can be found close to the bottom of "Old news".
  • by Tim C (15259) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @03:59AM (#12009640)
    I would have thought that it would come down to intent. Was the intent to create a configurable word game similar to Scrabble, or was it to create a game that other people could use to play Scrabble? The former is obviously fine; the latter may well be infringing.

    Copyright, trademark and patent law came about at a time when the ability to make copies was limited, as was education. We now copy things electronically in the blink of an eye

    That's true, but I don't see that as a reason to scrap copyright laws (I realise that you're not advocating that, but many do). Surely, if it's hard to copy things, copyright laws are *less* important than if it's easy to do so? In an age where anyone can copy music, films, software, etc, surely the producers of those works need *more* protection in order to be able to recoup their investment in producing them? Take films for example - they often cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. Even if we reduced stars' wages to a more realistic value, they'd still require a large investment (ever watch the credits? It takes a lot of money to pay that many people for the time it takes to create a film, not to mention materials, properties buying/hiring, etc). If anyone could copy it the moment it was released to the public, how would the studio/backers make their money back? Similarly for software (and especially games) that can require a truly staggering investment in terms of time and money to create. (I admire the people behind OSS projects like Apache, the Linux distros, etc, but I think it's unrealistic to expect all software development to be done that way)

    Similarly for an author. It can take a year or more to write a decent book. Authors can't realistically tour - how much would you be willing to pay to hear an author read excerpts from their book? Would they even be any good at public speaking?

    Now, I absolutely do not agree with the seemingly incessant extensions to the length of copyright protection. Ultimately, it is not in the public interest that a thing be protected for ever (which is especially true of software, where the source code can potentially teach so many so much). However, I truly believe that it is in the public interest that it be protected for a limited time; I don't pretend to know how long that is though.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @05:19AM (#12009918)
    The "Shredded Wheat" case stands for the principle that a name used to identify the invention in an expired patent is generic i.e. cannot support a trademark. If Scrabble was named in a patent that is now expired, then e-scrabble should be able to use the name freely, since the name is part of the invention that reverted to the public after the patent term. IAAL, but this is recollection from IP class 20 years ago. But the theory should be checked out.
  • by reallocate (142797) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @08:48AM (#12010648)
    Your opinion of the quality of Hasbro CD's is irrelevant and doesn't have a thing to do with their right to sue.

    Your silly notion that people ripping off Hasbro are doing it for love is also irrelevant. What they do counts, not why they do it.

    Ditto your notion that seeking profit = greed.

    Anyone who copies a product like Scrabble but expects not to be sued is naive beyond imagination. Get a clue. Copying someone else's business is just about the best way to be sued.

    Sorry if you don't like all this, but most people who make your arguments just want free stuff. The others actually, and incorrectly, believe people operate out of love and altruism.
  • Re:Only 14 years? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by BlueUnderwear (73957) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @09:47AM (#12011002)
    AFAIK you *cannot* patent game mechanics in the US.

    You cannot patent software in Europe either (at least not until the Parliament approves of the Krecké-directive in the second reading...). This howver didn't stop rogue companies such as Teles [teles.de] from registering such patents, and sadly enough, it didn't stop the courts from finding in their favor [teles.de] either...

  • by Finkbug (789750) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @09:59AM (#12011093)
    Hasbro does not own worldwide Scrabble rights. Competitor Mattel is the owner in many countries, most notably England.

    There are many free online not-quite-Scrabble games. Just far enough off the copyright infringement to mostly avoid the lawyers. There are two problems.

    There are quite a few official Scrabble dictionaries. US 2nd, US 3rd (expurgated), US 3rd tournament (no defs, unexpurgated), and goes on from there. There are words valid in UK play (Chambers and otherwise) but not US and vice versa. There are combined dictionaries. A poor dictionary **BREAKS** a word game. Most online word games have truly lousy free or licensed dictionaries. For a competent player it's infuriating playing "cete", "ai", or "qat" and having the word bounce. Some free games like the (Boggle-like) Tangleword(1) at www.playsite.com have solid dictionaries.

    More subtle is the balance of the Scrabble board itself, which must be messed with to pass legal muster. Millions of human and computer hours have been spent analyzing ideal play on that board and with Scrabble's letter scores and distribution. It's akin to changing the movement of the rook or the spacing of bases on the diamond. Might get a good game as a result but it'll sure play differently.

    (1) Tangleword's round timer requires Microsoft Java. The game is otherwise playable with proper Java. Maybe if a zillion /. appear and complain it'll be rewritten. (Won't, but a fantatic Tangleworder can dream.)
  • Pretty tragic (Score:3, Interesting)

    by borud (127730) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @10:57AM (#12011558) Homepage
    Whenever I see something like this I am struck by how silly these intellectual property disputes are. Okay, so Hasbro has to defend its intellectual property so we all agree they have to do something (no, seriously, this is not in dispute here), but I'd wish they would do something a bit more intelligent than just threatening the guy.

    What they really ought to do is make him a business proposition. They hire him to maintain and further develop the site, since there is obviously a market for it, and for their cash they get a community of 100.000 players, a system that apparently works already and someone who can drive it on.

    You'd have to be pretty daft to not see an opportunity here, but then again, where do you think all the people in the financial sector come from :-).

  • What damages? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by danieljpost (455925) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @11:04AM (#12011645)
    At first I looked at this & thought that Hasbro had a pretty good case. The C&D itself certainly presents a prima facie argument. Certainly they do own copyrights on the physical game board and the printed rules that come with every Scrabble game.
    But then I thought about damages. Here's the thing: It would be absolutely illegal for someone to start making his own scrabble box sets with the name Scrabble on the box and a photocopy of the original rules in the box. So obviously illegal that I'm sure nobody has ever seriously considered trying it.
    And if Hasbro could successfully argue that they suffered a loss of sales due to this guy's efforts, the case would be closed pretty dern quickly. I think they would fail to prove this charge. Here's why: it would be extremely unlikely that anyone playing online Scrabble DOES NOT also own a physical Scrabble box set. Perhaps they should take a (real, scientific, not online) survey of those 10,000 online users. I bet there would be about 10 who do not currently own a copy of the game. And 3 more who never have.
    The benefit of playing online, I would argue, is clearly NOT to avoid having to buy the box set. The benefit is that you could be more flexible in when to play, and whom. It's a chat room for people who love the game (I have not seen the pre-Slashdot site).
    Scrabble players could accomplish the same thing by talking on the phone, on two identical Hasbro-approved boards, like "I placed QUUX vertically connected to your XRAY, Triple Word Score!!". But obviously such game play would suck.
    He may end up losing this battle, but it's not like he couldn't put up a fight. And just to be a dick I think he should give up the domain name. He PAID for that (I assume).
    Last thought: it's a damn good thing that Chess is in the public domain. I own a $3 plastic chess set, a ~$20 wooden set, and a $150+ marble set, all from different places. I can legally write my own online chess game with no worries at all. These are Good Things.
  • by SuiteSisterMary (123932) <slebrun@noSPAm.gmail.com> on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @11:38AM (#12012011) Journal

    The layout of the board is copyrighted.

    He is using their board layout without permission.

    Hence, he is in the wrong.

  • by Moraelin (679338) on Tuesday March 22, 2005 @12:33PM (#12012705) Journal
    It's a valid observation, though, and I suppose it does illustrate a few points. Thanks for bringing it up.

    See, what I had in mind by "socially acceptable" was more along the lines of "acceptable for adults". As in, you won't see the CEO of a company (unless maybe if the company is Games Workshop itself) playing Warhammer 40k at the club, but chess might be socially acceptable.

    High school is a more interesting case, at least in the wester world, because IMHO it's a massive cultural failure. Doing anything even remotely intellectual-like, or god forbid actually being any good at using your brains, is more likely than not to get you ridiculed, ostracized or downright bullied.

    (And in more pathological cases even arrested or questioned. Dangerous people those ostracized nerds, apparently. You never know when they'll shoot up the school;)

    It doesn't even matter if it's chess or anything else that requires more than one braincell awake. Being a mindless lemming with a cool t-shirt and the latest Brittney Spears is good, using your brains is bad. It's way uncool to have a brain.

    Also, well, chess happens to fall under the heading of "stuff that adults do". You won't catch a cool teenager touching that stuff with a 10 ft pole.

    Though that kind of age preconception isn't exclusive to teenagers. It works both ways. A lot of adults won't touch a lot of games with a 10 ft pole (board, table-top and/or video games) if they seem to fall under the heading "stuff for kids."
  • Re:missed point (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 23, 2005 @02:10AM (#12020792)

    Actually, this is probably just a lawyer who is supposed to be representing Hasbro trying to get a raise by starting a fight.

    Maybe the big boss at Hasbro will fire the lawyer and send an apology letter.

    The case doesn't go to court unless Hasbro and escrabble.com can't settle the matter themselves and if the lawyer makes that decision and doesn't get fired before getting to court.

    This is just how lawyers do business.

    There is no point.

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