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.