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Monday, Dec 16, 2019
Home / Columns / The scramble for scrabble

The scramble for scrabble

The Brothers Agarwalla, who boilerplated scrabble and changed the online board-gaming world, have shown that the traditional borders that capitalism has set for itself breaks down in an open world, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:32 IST
Pratik Kanjilal
Pratik Kanjilal

A tiff between a Kolkata software company and Rhode Island toymaker Hasbro is looking like a teaser of the fall of capitalism. It's fitting that the challenge comes from Red Kolkata, and ironic that it's led by two young Marwaris, whose community Kolkata regards as filthy capitalists because they control most of the city's business.

In 2006, Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla found their favourite online Scrabble site had gone pay and, in the spirit of desi jugaad, built their own free version. The hobby site grew, plugged into Facebook and acquired a fan following of lakhs. Unfortunately, it looks, walks and talks like Scrabble, which is owned by Hasbro in North America. Hasbro got mad about it in January and last week, it filed a copyright violation suit in New York.

On Tuesday, Facebook pulled the plug on Scrabulous in North America, in the teeth of railing and weeping fans. "Please, God, I have so little, don’t take Scrabulous too," pleaded one. "Give us Scrabulous or give us Death!" roared another. To soothe their angst, Hasbro launched an authorised version of Scrabble. But on Thursday, Scrabulous was back on Facebook. It had sidestepped copyright issues by morphing into Wordscraper, which looks and plays completely different and has different rules. In fact, players can make up their own rules.

The Scrabble story reads like an anti-parable of American-style capitalism, which famously promises to reward innovation and ownership. Alfred Mosher Butts, the unemployed accountant who created Scrabble during the Depression, got almost nothing for it. The Agarwalla brothers, creative innovators who boilerplated it to the Internet, have narrowly escaped being screwed over. And now, in the words of R.U. Sirius, iconic cybernut and co-founder of Mondo 2000, they have mutated to take over the world. They have negated a basic tenet of modern capitalism: absolute ownership of property.

Capitalism also declares that the consumer is king. But Hasbro has sued in the teeth of petitions, despite predictions of a PR nightmare. Instead of gunning for the Agarwallas, the company should have co-opted them as brand emissaries. Thanks to their stupidity, the world is now full of people who love their game, hate their company and support two boys in Kolkata whom Hasbro has stigmatised as pirates. And the 'pirates' may win the contest. Their new version of Scrabble is now competing with Hasbro's cut on Facebook and going by the response, it's going to fly. In the globalised, digitally-mediated world, traditional capitalism doesn't seem to work any more. The Agarwallas have shown that little guys can bust big business so wide that rusty springs show.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine