Friday, August 1, 2008

The troubling state of Internet ethics

I'm sure many readers are aware of the legal hassle between Hasbro, owners of the Scrabble game trademark in North America, and the Indian developers of Scrabulous, a Scrabble rip-off on the Facebook social network site. Hasbro sued to shut down Scrabulous, alleging trademark infringement, and a week later Scrabulous was taken down for North American Facebook users.

The trouble is, this is as clear a case of copyright infringement as I've ever seen. Any logical, dispassionate analysis of the situation would show that. However, instead of acknowledging this, the Argawalla brothers, developers of Scrabulous, have mounted a public-relations-style defense:

The Agarwallas have argued that Scrabble has been copied so many times in so many different ways, by other websites and board games, that the copyright no longer applies.

They're also being sued by Mattel, which owns the Scrabble trademark in the rest of the world, and are doubtless going to use a similar defense in that lawsuit as well.

Let's be clear. This is theft, pure and simple. If the Argawalla brothers can get away with barefaced robbery of intellectual property like this, then nothing is safe. Music, books, patents, designs, whatever: they can all be copied and abused with impunity. This sort of thing is clearly illegal, clearly unethical. So is the pirating of music and videos over the Internet. Anyone who makes illegal copies of such material is as guilty as the Argawallas of stealing other people's property.

The trouble is, we tend to fudge the boundaries when using the Internet. We excuse our own theft by saying weakly that "Well, everyone's doing it!", and try to put it out of our minds. We enjoy playing a game like Scrabulous, and don't want to be told that by doing so, we're aiding and abetting thieves in their activities. We see a good picture online, and make a copy for our own use (on our desktops as a background display, or on our blogs, or to include in an e-mail to friends), not considering the copyright implications. (Note: the pictures I use on my blog are all from news sites that permit copying them, with attribution and/or permission, or from public-domain sources, or have expired copyrights. I don't make illegal copies.)

I don't know the answer . . . but I fear that the Internet is becoming a hotbed of illegal, illicit and dishonest activity. I wish that weren't the case. It's something that might seriously threaten the open nature of the Internet, and lead to stricter controls - which would be bad for everybody.



Anonymous said...

There's one heck of a difference between right and wrong, and online or bricks-and-mortar/real world has nothing to do with it. I don't care if you're talking about stealing a candy bar from the corner store, cheating on your taxes, making downloads of copyrighted materials for yourself or selling pirated copies of DVDs or CDs: it's not okay to do something illegal or morally or ethically wrong just because 'everybody else is'.

These guys are, quite simply, criminals, and if they weren't ripping off Scrabble they'd be stealing something else.

Anonymous said...

Amen. I use Getty images for my pictures.

Anonymous said...

(Laughing out loud)

I don't know the answer . . . but I fear that the Internet is becoming a hotbed of illegal, illicit and dishonest activity.

You fear? Where have you been living for the last ten years? Internet already is a hotbed of illegal & illcit activities(just google "torrent" to see a fraction of it). Ever since the start, illegal file sharing has been on the internet.

One may say that copyright infringement isn't exactly theft (you don't deprive anyone of the original object). Possible lost revenue..

That's just what ordinary people do, all around the world. There is a lot of other more outright criminal activity (google phishing.. )

And I didn't even mention Spam...
It's something that might seriously threaten the open nature of the Internet, and lead to stricter controls - which would be bad for everybody.
Ah well. There's been talk of this for some time, but no one apart from control-freak politicians take s it seriously....

(I agree that the Scrabulous app is some kind of theft. They earned something like 25K monthly from it.
However, Hasbro should have coopted the makers of Scrabulous, as their own game reportedly sucks in a major way... )


Anonymous said...

Copyright infringement very much IS theft, and I'm here to tell you such theft DOES cause damage. I, for example, am a theater projectionist, and have been for a few decades now. I myself do not hold any copyrights, but when some jerk sells pirated copies, everyone from the producers and actors to the kid out front selling popcorn takes the hit, because pirated copies = fewer patrons for the legitimate prints, which means everyone in the entire legitimate chain gets hurt right in thier wallet --- including, I assure you, ME. Ask any musician: they get a royalty for thier labor to make legitimate CDs, but pirated CDs steal that work, and the artist loses. A pirate certainly DOES "deprive someone of the original object"!

(And just for the record: Scrabble is one heck of a great game; unlike so much alledged entertainment (good grief: reality TV?!?) Scrabble actually requires a person to use thier brain.)

Gay_Cynic said...

First off, the gentlemen in question have a fairly legitimate defense - if a copyright or trademark is not defended, consistently and vigorously, when the holder becomes aware of potential violations - it is my understanding that said copyright or trademark then becomes null and void.

I.e., if I invent a game called "Thundermug" that is catchy and fun and grand...and copyright/trademark it...but then do nothing to defend my copyright/trademark for a sufficient period of time as violations take place that I have or should have knowledge of...the copyright dies of neglect.

Secondly, given the term extensions of copyrights well beyond anything rational or what the founders intended - I find it rather difficult to have much charity for the copyright holders.

Anonymous said...

gay_cynic's comment is like saying,
if the house is unlocked it's ok to
rob from it. It is exactly the same type of thinking we see so often in the criminal element of society. If I don't spend my nights in the driveway consistently and vigorously defending my car it is OK for someone to steal it? If I don't consistently and vigorously defend my child it is my fault if they get molested? It is such liberal and misguided thinking that promotes and wrongly justifies the actions of so many who would not normally engage in illegal activity to do so.