This summer, following threats of litigation by Hasbro, owner of the Scrabble board game’s copyright, the popular Facebook application Scrabulous was shut down, reworked, and relaunched as Wordscraper, featuring a new layout, design, and scoring system. In the aftermath of these events, many Facebook users and content creators are confused. Creators are wondering to what extent their creations may infringe on existing copyright, while some users accuse Hasbro of acting too hastily or harshly. Why, they ask, did Hasbro feel the need to shut Scrabulous down instead of trying to cut a deal to take it over, thereby gaining the fan base, and attendant advertising income, that Scrabulous had accumulated? Still others may wonder why, if Scrabulous infringed on Hasbro’s copyright, why doesn’t the new Wordscraper? It is essentially the same game, with merely the design elements and scoring tweaked slightly. The answers to these questions lie, in part, in copyright law.
It is a basic principle of copyright law that the law protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. It is for this reason that the redesigned Wordscraper will be able to survive any legal challenge by Hasbro. Hasbro holds no copyright in the idea of a game in which players construct words on a board using randomly assigned letters. Hasbro’s copyright protects the design of the board, the text of the rules, and other similar elements of the game. It is for this reason that Hasbro brought suit against Scrabulous, and why the creators removed the game so swiftly. It was obvious to anyone who had played the game that the board design and scoring had been directly lifted from Scrabble, so much so that it is likely at least some users were surprised to learn that Scrabulous was not, in fact, produced by Hasbro.
So, as some users ask, why didn’t Hasbro buy out Scrabulous and continue to operate it as the official Facebook version of Scrabble? Perhaps a better question would be: why should they? The owner of a copyright is the only person who may use or publish substantial parts of the work in question, or license anyone else to do so. Hasbro is a large corporation with an established business model, which has managed to maintain the popularity of Scrabble in its original form for some time. If and when Hasbro chooses to expand into an online version of Scrabble, they will no doubt do so. It is ridiculous to imply that Hasbro has any sort of duty to maintain an online presence merely because a young software developer plagiarised the game and popularised it on the web. To imply otherwise would invalidate our copyright regime. Surely the owner of the copyright may publish the work in whatever form they see fit, and is not required to indulge the whims of internet users who would rather play for free than purchase a real copy of the game.