The owner of the rights to the game Scrabble in the US, Hasbro, is suing the creators of a Facebook version of the game, Scrabulous. Hasbro says that the game is an infringmenet of its intellectual property rights.
Scrabulous has been a phenomenon on Facebook, with around half a million active games being played at any given time.
Any players trying to play the game today are greeted with the message: "The popular Scrabble-like Facebook game Scrabulous has been suspended on the social networking platform. The game has been the subject of a fierce rights battle."
Hasbro is about to launch its own version of Scrabble on Facebook and has filed a suit against the two brothers behind Scrabulous Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla and their company RJ Softwares.
"We view the Scrabulous application as clear and blatant infringement of our Scrabble intellectual property, and we are pursuing this legal action in accordance with the interests of our shareholders, and the integrity of the Scrabble brand," said Hasbro's General Counsel, Barry Nagler.
Hasbro's own version of Scrabble is in a test phase with a limited number of users, with reports suggesting that the game will be available for all Facebook users next month. That game has been created in conjunction with games company,Electronic Arts.
Mattel owns the rights to Scrabble outside the US and is reportedly working on its own version of the game for Facebook.
Hasbro wrote to Facebook earlier this year asking it to remove Scrabulous, but Facebook declined.
"Over the past year, Facebook has tried to use its status as neutral platform provider to help the parties come to an amicable agreement," a Facebook statement said. "We're disappointed that Hasbro has sought to draw us into their dispute."
The suit alleges that Scrabulous infringes Hasbro's copyright in breach of the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
According to Information Week, the law suit, which has not yet been published by the US courts service, claims that the name Scrabulous is 'confusingly similar' to the name Scrabble, that the game uses "essential and original elements" of Scrabble and that the Agarwalla brothers have even admitted that the games are essentially the same.
Lee Curtis, a trade mark expert with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW, said that while the toy company had a strong legal case, it may be wise for it to consider other factors.
"On the face of it, Hasbro would appear to have a reasonably strong legal case. Scrabulous is obviously based on the well-known Scrabble game and the Scrabble and Scrabulous marks are likely to be found to be similar by a court," he said. "However, such cases often do not simply turn on the strength of legal argument alone, public opinion often comes into play".
"Scrabulous apparently has around 500,000 daily players, and the case of KFC challenging the use of the term 'Family Feast' by the Yorkshire pub, The Tan Hill Inn, comes to mind. The public outcry to KFC's challenge ultimately forced a rethink by KFC," he said.
Fast food outlet KFC threatened small Yorkshire pub The Tan Hill Inn with legal action last year over its use of the phrase 'family feast', on which it had a trade mark for use in the food industry.
"It is possible that ultimately some licensing deal may be agreed between the parties to settle the dispute," said Curtis. "Hasbro ultimately wish to maintain control of their Scrabble brand and could use the popularity of the Scrabulous application to build goodwill in the brand further to the benefit of all."