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Scrabble at 60


Most Fridays, we talk about sports and the business of sports with Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal. We'll talk with him as usual today, but about his other field of expertise - Scrabble and the business of Scrabble.

Stefan is the author of the book "Word Freak," which chronicled the world of competitive Scrabble in which Stefan did for Scrabble roughly what Herman Melville did for whaling in the 19th century.

Stefan, your favorite game has never been in the news quite the way it has of late. There's a fight between the manufacturer of what a lover of retronyms might call terrestrial Scrabble, and an online version, that, to coin a phrase, is sweeping the nation.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS: Yes. Scrabulous is the online game. And a little background is in order here. Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in North America. Mattel owns the right to Scrabble in the rest of the world. And Scrabulous was invented by two guys in 2005. They are brothers who lived in Calcutta, India, and they have nothing to do with Hasbro or Mattel.

They put up a site for their version of Scrabble. It took off when it became a Facebook application, the popular social networking site, last year. It is the most popular game there. More than two million registered users, several hundred thousand daily users, and it demonstrates what I've always believed that there's this latent appeal in our brains to play this word game.

Hasbro traditionally sold about a million or so sets a year of Scrabble, but it's never found a way to reach the true masses particularly in the digital age.

SIEGEL: Well, somebody else has and that has not made the manufacturers happy, obviously.

FATSIS: Right. And Hasbro and Mattel, in January, sent letters to Facebook and the brothers, asking them to shut down Scrabulous. And what we've got here are essentially trademark and copyright infringement issues.

Scrabulous is Scrabble. It looks like Scrabble. It plays like Scrabble. It's very easy to use. The companies haven't found a way to do what Scrabulous has done as we said, but that doesn't necessarily mean that somebody else has the legal right to do that. I am not a lawyer, but Hasbro and Mattel have, over the years, stopped people and companies from copying the game, using the name and the marks for commercial purposes. Some applications have slipped by unchecked. There are other places to play Scrabble on the Internet. Scrabulous, though, has been the first serious threat and the most popular.

SIEGEL: Well, have Scrabble fans the world over said, attaway Hasbro and Mattel protect your rights to the game and don't let us play it online?

FATSIS: I think some of the more rational people would argue that, but certainly players don't care. They just want to play. There have been online petitions. There have been Facebook groups devoted to saving the game. There was even a music video tribute to Scrabulous put up on the site that spoofs the song "Glamorous" by the singer Fergie, which I'm sure, Robert, you're familiar with.

SIEGEL: Of course. I don't think I can even spell Fergie for Scrabble, or it wouldn't be acceptable, would it…

FATSIS: It is not acceptable. Well…

SIEGEL: How will this dispute between these people who credit the game online, all the people who've been playing the game online, and the manufacturers of Scrabble? How might it be resolved?

FATSIS: Well, the manufacturers aren't stupid. They don't want to alienate these new users of their product. So, there has to be a resolution here, and it's probably going to be a settlement.

These guys have swelled the ranks of Scrabble players, but they're going to want some money to go away. So, what they're going to do? They're going to find a way to keep this on Facebook in some form or another. At the same time, Hasbro has a partner for interactive games, EA. They've been developing their own Scrabble site online. That's going to go up fairly soon. The company says it will be a place to aggregate players and find a way to generate revenue for Hasbro that the company has been missing out on.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Stefan Fatsis, talking with us this week about Scrabble and the business of Scrabble. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.