Seth vs. Scrabulous: The hell with freedom


Today was a bad day to be free. It all began when marketing guru Seth Godin announced on his blog he was opening a special “tribe” club only for people who spend $14 on his next book. Seth’s move drew cries of outrage from social media intellectuals offended at the idea of a new pay-for-access walled garden.

Next up, toymaker Hasbro finally twisted Facebook’s arm into shutting down the hyperpopular online game Scrabulous in the U.S. and Canada. Scrabulous, which now attracts 500,000 users daily, is a free knockoff of Scrabble created by two Indian brothers and has become a flashpoint in the debate over fair use and trademark protection in the wild world of the web. Hasbro is hoping to lure users to its own version of online Scrabble, now in beta.

Let’s pause and consider this. Both Seth and Hasbro have a point. Seth creates ideas, has to make a living, and so wants to charge money to attract a fan base of loyalists … for whom he’ll provide more access and special content. Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in North America and had a legitimate claim that Scrabulous is an unfair copy.

So why the turmoil? Don’t you expect to get paid for your work? Would you be happy if someone stole your idea?

Consumers in just a few years have grown accustomed to getting everything for free. The challenge for content producers who hope to profit is this groundswell of “free hunting” is almost unstoppable. If a newspaper web site charges admission, users flow around the barrier to find it free elsewhere. If Seth charges for access, odds are his blog readership will decline and intellectuals will flap to another bright candle. (Bloggers seemed most upset over Seth’s move, assuming that someone who writes about building communities would understand that communities no longer want to pay admission.)

Today’s reality is almost comic: People get upset if they can’t get knowledge, content, or transactions for free. Seth and Scrabble have rights. The entire economy is based on expending energy to create something in exchange for assurance you will get paid. But that old model is starting to slip, perhaps driven by the easy access the internet and Google have provided to all the world’s information. Seeing a bar that low, humans now resent any higher barriers.

And it’s a test for your business as well. What will you do when your competition gives it away?

5 thoughts on “Seth vs. Scrabulous: The hell with freedom

  1. I have a different point of view to consider — with the low barrier to entry for most communities, it is possible that some will be willing to pay for some sort of exclusivity to filter out all the noise that often comes with these free communities?

    I signed up for Seth Godin’s offer primarily to find out what exactly he is offering, to explore whether there will eventually be more “gated” communities like this.

  2. Ben, I’ve got no issue with Seth’s desire to have an “exclusive” network, or even him charging for it.

    But him launching it solely as a promotional vehicle for his book, while prohibiting members from promoting themselves or even sharing what they learn there? Preposterous.

  3. I think that there are really two different issues here.

    Issue #1: Scrabulous. There is no argument that Scrabulous is 100% copyright infringement. It is virtual Scrabble. Hasbro has every right to shut down this free program. Remember Napster?

    Issue #2: Seth Godin’s paid content. Seth has every right to provide extra content for those who pay for it. That’s what keep DVD sales going, isn’t it? You can stay at home and order your pay-per-view movie and see the same basic content as everyone else, but when you buy the DVD, you get all the “bonus” footage, outtakes, and other special features. Now, I haven’t bought a DVD in probably 2 years because special features aren’t really my thing. So I’m not the kind of person who would buy Seth’s bonus content, but I imagine for those people who are interested enough to buy Seth’s book, they will probably appreciate his added online content.

    Here’s the real issue. Fee-based content can not REPLACE free content. Can it be an additional layer of experience for hard-core fans? Sure! But in a world of free social media, no one is going to pay for something they can get elsewhere for free. Seth, as smart as he is, isn’t the only one with good marketing ideas or a solid handle on how to use the internet to your advantage. If I had to pay to get access to any of his online content, I would simply move on down the line.

    But that’s not what he is implying. He is working to add value to his product. His product happens to be largely intellectual (book pitch aside). He may cite exclusivity as a key component of a tribe, but any good marketer knows exclusivity + money = value.

  4. Ben, I joined Seth’s network

    a)to see what would be there

    and

    b)as a way to manage my “daily” content – I’ve found the busier I am the less “searching around” time I get – I just a few places to look and share every day.

    and for that time saving promise? I am more than happy to pay $14 for! (and it’s really just an extra content aspect from the book, which I would have bought anyway…)

  5. Kelly, thanks, you bring it all back to reality. $14 for a book and access to the author probably isn’t a bad deal.

    I’ll talk to you for 50 cents 🙂

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