Monday, March 03, 2008

Scrabulous and the Piracy Disconnect...

Here is yet another demonstration of the immense disconnect that exists between cultural norms and outdated business models.

The New York Times ran an article on its front page yesterday describing the latest web phenomenon - an online version of the game "Scrabble". A pair of brothers from India re-created the classic board game so that it could be played on Facebook, and called their version, "Scrabulous".

That's really as complicated as this story ought to be. The official makers of the board game, Hasbro and Mattel, never thought to make such a game, so two avid fans essentially made one for them. It has since signed up millions of users and has opened up an entirely new potential market - online social-network-based gaming. Oh, and by the way, since Scrabulous has taken off, sales of the actual board game are believed to have skyrocketed as well.

So how are the Agarwalla brothers rewarded? By lawsuits.

Hasbro and Mattel are suing them for copyright infringement and enabling mass piracy. They are trying to frame the issue in the same terms that the record industry has attempted (without success) to portray most people under the age of 60 as "pirates" and "criminals". Hasbro and Mattel have even threatened lawsuits against individual users (otherwise known as their own customers) simply for playing the game.

Most Facebook users find the idea of Scrabulous being copyright infringement as laughable, and here is where the great divide between outdated business models and cultural norms is most evident.

In legal circles, the "public domain" refers to things or ideas which are so much a part of our common culture that no one can reasonably claim ownership over them. For example, the Bible, Beethoven's symphonies, and a deck of playing cards (for poker, blackjack, etc.) are all part of what Lawrence Lessig and others refer to as "the commons". No one can claim ownership or collect royalties, and you don't need to ask anybody's permission to reproduce them.

The problem that this case is emblematic of is this: How do we define what is part of our shared culture, and deserving of being in the public domain, in a world where digital reproduction and distribution occurs billions of times every day, by billions of people?

Scrabble has been around for generations, and it sure seems to be as much a part of our common culture as poker, blackjack, or chess. Plus, the Agarwalla brothers were meeting an obvious market demand with Scrabulous that was not otherwise being met. Therefore, a reform of copyright law is badly needed to expand the definition of public domain works to include things exactly like Scrabulous.

In a less dysfunctional system, technological and business innovation would not be stifled so severely by obtuse power elites. It would be rewarded.


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