August 7, 2008

Follow the Lead-Users, Not with Cease-and-Desists

Filed under: Chilling Effects, code, copyright, innovation, trademark — wseltzer @ 2:25 pm

Hasbro should have settled with the Scrabulous developers, not sued

While Hasbro was scrapping with Mattel over rights to develop an official online Scrabble (the two split geographic ownership of the Scrabble trademark), the Agarwalla brothers were building one. Their Facebook app, launched a year ago, won a loyal following among Scrabble fans who appreciated a chance to play the word game online, with friends in their social networks. Scrabulous listened to user suggestions, enhancing the online version to the point where it could boast 1.3 million monthly users and a 4.2 star rating, (as compared to 235k users giving Hasbro’s recently launched “beta” 1.2 stars).

Hasbro, however, responded to Scrabulous with a lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of New York, claiming copyright and trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition. In response, the Agarwalla brothers closed the Scrabulous app to users whose IP addresses were located in the U.S. and Canada. (Since the Scrabulous website remains accessible from North American IPs, it’s possible the Facebook app was restricted under pressure from and on Facebook.) The EA Scrabble beta has been criticized as more visual flash than substance, without many of the playability features users had appreciated in Scrabulous.

Whether or not it has the legal right, I think Hasbro’s lawyers gave the company bad business advice. As I’ve said before, I believe Hasbro has no copyright claim, but might have (easily avoidable) trademark claims based on the “Scrabulous” name. If trademark’s value is goodwill, Hasbro’s federal complaint lost far more in goodwill than it preserved in control.

Hasbro may think it can ride this one out, that even 1.3 million Facebookers are only a small fraction of those it might interest in an “official” version later. Numerically, of course, that may be correct, but the raw numbers would miss the identities of those users.

I just came out of a three-day workshop on user innovation, where much research was presented on the value of “lead users” in innovation (see Democratizing Innovation for more). Lead users, such as Tim O’Reilly’s “alpha geeks,” push products and services to their limits, tweaking and often improving when their needs aren’t met by the stock components. Smart companies learn to listen to these users — while some of their demands will be unique corner cases, others are early indicators of where the masses will be soon — and where profits are to be made by a company that can supply needs and lead demand.

The Net makes lead-user innovation easier than ever, lowering the costs of communications channels to users sharing their enthusiasm and jointly developing ideas. They often freely reveal ideas and improvements that the savvy company can use in its own product development.

Some companies, O’Reilly’s among them, recognize the value of lead-user innovation and foster these user communities with conferences, forums, or support. When they take ideas and develop them further, to a mass audience now caught up to the curve, they do it so everyone feels fairly treated: the lead users get access to better products the company can produce at larger scale — and a platform for further innovation. Maybe the company even gets a chance to steer the “hackers” toward developments it prefers.

Others, however, see any hacking as “unauthorized,” to be shut down with cease-and-desist threats. They send nasty letters that may shut down the activity but also alienate the users who might show them where to go next. This is what Hasbro has done with its lawsuit against the Agarwalla brothers behind Scrabulous.

The Scrabulous users included Scrabble’s lead-user enthusiasts. Many fans posted to the application’s forum or “wall” (10,953 posts), giving the app developers (and anyone listening) both praise and suggestions for further enhancement. These lead users both told and showed where they wanted the game to go next. The Agarwalla brothers themselves were lead user innovators par excellence, spotting a need and filling it.

Hasbro’s lawsuit response to this outpouring of enthusiasm around Scrabble play quashed much of that lead-user drive. The posts on the EA “Scrabble beta” forum mix criticism of the company with complaints of bugs. Hasbro has neither the quality application nor the community around “official” Scrabble as the Agarwalla brothers had for Scrabulous.

There should have been enough value in Scrabulous to share — Hasbro does have US and Canada trademark rights to Scrabble, which imparted some value to the “Scrabulous” app, and Hasbro’s authorization could have allowed Scrabulous to build even further on the recognized brand. The Agarwallas have shown both programming talent and the ability to engage other enthusiasts. Together, they could create more value than either alone, and likely more than enough extra value to make it worth both their whiles to cooperate. As is, some of that value will migrate over to Wordscraper (Scrabulous’s revised form, which is fun but suffers from lack of interoperability with Scrabble), and some will head to authorized Scrabble, but some will dissipate entirely.

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