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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stupid Intellectual Property Rights

NPR has been reporting on a story regarding a new popular facebook applet / online game called Scrabulous. Going to scrabulous.com, the game is remarkably similar to Scrabble (which is owned by Hasbro, who maintain intellectual property rights over the game). Of course, Hasbro isn't too happy that millions of facebook subscribers are adding Scrabulous to their profiles and playing it online (without Hasbro's permission of course since Scrabulous is not owned by Hasbro). Hasbro has said it will try to resolve the issue privately (ie try to kick Scrabulous to the curb) but if talks are unsuccesful it will sue arguing that its intellectual property has been violated.

This to me is a great example of an ever increasing body of evidence suggesting that the whole notion of "intellectual property" needs serious legal and economic reexaminging. Luckily many economists are focusing more on this field and many (See Boldrin and Levine, for example). I myself see benefits and costs (tradeoffs) that argue for and against intel. property rights.

But this case of Scrabble is a bit ridiculous insn't it? There's this harmless online game that, to my knowlege was created by 2 twenty-something guys who were probably bored and just wanted to do something fun. They did, and they distributed it online and now people can play this for free online. Two points: First, I'm wondering if the very "online" nature differentiates Scrabulous enough from Scrabble to make it legally a "different" game. Second, I say it's harmless because I really doubt this online game eats into Hasbro profits - precisely because an online game is different than that an offline one. I can't easily play an online game at the kitchen table with a large group of my family and friends. The "feeling" isn't the same, much as it's not the same reading an online book compared to laying down with a glass of wine by the fireplace and enjoying a nice paperback.

I understand the point that intellectual creativity needs to be incentivized and maintaining intellectual property may be important to that end (though the degree can be debated). But Scrabble has been around for decades and really it's just a multiplayer crossword puzzle, and those have been around for centuries. I think at some point these types of intellectual property and copyright extention monopolies harm social welfare in the long run. Beyond that though, I would think Scrabulous serves to introduce the traditional Scrabble game to a younger newer market - which I think Hasbro would not want to frown upon.

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