confessions of a scrabble holic

I hereby confess that I am a hardened and unrepentant Scrabble-snatcher.

I hereby confess that I am a hardened and unrepentant Scrabble-snatcher.

For more than a dozen years now, over my morning coffee, and just before bed time, I have been opening my web browser and logging on to a surreptitious website to make plays on my list of illicit Scrabble games.

I can come clean about this felonious activity at last, because, in the past few years, it has become progressively less felonious.

That is because the Hasboro and Mattel corporations (the two companies that currently own the copyright to the game) have begun, slowly and fitfully, to get with the millennium.

These days, you can play a real-time version of Scrabble on the website; and Facebook offers two day-by-day-play versions of the game – one playable only in Canada and the USA, and one playable in the rest of the world but, but not in Canada or the USA.

I have, in fact, begun playing Scrabble using the Facebook site, but I still remain loyal to the private “club” site I helped to create about a dozen years ago.

I was, and remain, the unofficial and self-appointed president of this little virtual Scrabble club.

It is a by-invitation-only site, and I am the guy who decides who gets accepted or not – a pretty light duty, since the site has not taken on any new users in at least half a dozen years.

How I ended up using and managing this website is an interesting story, because it says a lot about how seriously destructive big, brainless companies like Hasbro and Mattel can be, even to their own best interests, when they do not understand the post-internet world of commerce.

First, an explanatory note as to how two different companies came to have control of the Scrabble copyright and trademark.

The game of Scrabble was first invented by a man with the admirably appropriate name of Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938, though his name for it was “Criss-Crosswords.”

Ten years later, a man named James Brunot bought the copyright from Butts, made a few changes to the play of the game, and came up with the name “Scrabble.”

When the game finally started to take off as a commodity in the early ‘50s, Brunot sold the manufacturing rights to two companies, one in the USA, and one in Australia.

The US company was ultimately bought up by Hasbro, and Mattel ultimately ended up owning the Australian company.

The end result of this rather confused corporate situation is that Hasbro owns all rights to the Scrabble game in Canada and the USA, while Mattel owns the rights in the rest of the world – hence the two different versions of the online version on Facebook.

In short, Scrabble is a brilliant, wonderful game that has had the misfortune to fall into the hands of not one but two pretty much brain-dead mega-corporations.

Though they have now come around to the idea of letting people play Scrabble on the internet (though, typically, in a way so confused that North Americans cannot play games with fellow aficionados anywhere else), they have a long and undistinguished history of persecuting lovers of the game who wanted to play it on line.

A case in point is the little Netscrabble program that forms the basis of that surreptitious internet scrabble site of mine.

I stumbled on the fist Netscrabble site in my early days with the now-defunct internet service provider, YKnet.

I was already a functioning Scrabble-holic, playing regularly on weekends with skilled players who usually beat the tar out of me; so I was delighted with the chance to buff up my game, when I saw this elegant little website running on a computer called Yoda, after the Star Wars character.

Yoda was a main serving computer of the University of Durban, in South Africa.

Netscrabble was the result of a PhD project by a student in computer science at that university.

It was being hosted free of charge on the university’s computer as a service to the general public.

The program itself was a sweet piece of work, and the ethical intentions of the University of Durban were thoroughly admirable; but neither the creator of the program nor the University were ready for the complications, both technical and legal, that were about to come down on them.

First, the Netscrabble site became so enormously popular that the load on Yoda became too heavy, and it started to crash, and usually in the middle of the academic day.

The university generously supplied a different computer to act as a server, which quickly came under load, too, and started to crash.

The creator of the program then released the code free of charge to all takers, in the hope that other people would set up Netscrabble sites, and thus reduce the load on the University.

(This, by the way, is when I acquired the code that still runs on that secret site of mine to this day.)

That offer was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by many individuals and small companies, mostly in the USA, some offering the service for free, some charging a nominal membership fee.

But that was also the point at which both Hasbro and Mattel came down heavily on the computer programmer and the university, accusing them of violating their copyright and trademark rights.

The result was that most of the sites had to close down or go “underground” and become available only to those in the know.

Eventually they all petered out and disappeared.

The site I play on was set up “under the rose” at the time this great devastation was beginning.

It was intended as a service to some of my local an online friends, and it has run quietly and, for the most part, uninterruptedly for all these years.

I look at the site with a little sadness, now, thinking what an enormous opportunity both Mattel and Hasbro missed when they committed legal murder on this now-dated but still elegant little software program.

I know from direct experience that my site was responsible for people buying many dozens of actual Scrabble sets, once they had developed a devotion to the game because of the online experience.

How many hundreds of thousands – even millions – of new customers might have enriched Hasbro’s and Mattel’s pockets if they had sponsored and developed the game, instead of assassinating it?

We will never know, but in this case my conscience is clean.

I am following up on the ethical lead provided by those good people at the University of Durban.

I helped serve the interests of this magical, wildly addictive little game, despite the follies, and to the eventual benefit, of the corporate buffoons who unfortunately control the rights to it.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.