NEW YORK – As Facebook has blossomed into a hot Internet hangout, its users have passed countless hours playing Scrabble with friends — or at least, an unauthorized version of the word game that Scrabble's owners have tried to shut down.
Now a video game maker will try to legitimize the activity.
Electronic Arts Inc. said Monday that this month it will release a Scrabble application, a Web program that Facebook members can plug into their profile pages.
EA hopes to capitalize on the success of an unauthorized version called Scrabulous, which was created by two brothers in India and has nearly a half-million daily users, despite efforts by Scrabble's owners to squish it.
EA spokeswoman Trudy Muller said the video game maker's offering would be "an authorized, licensed Scrabble game experience that people familiar with Scrabble can instantly recognize as Scrabble."
It's unclear whether legality will be enough to lure Facebook members — and their friends — already familiar with the unauthorized version. Muller said she could not comment on any differences in features.
One key limitation is that EA's Facebook game will be available only to U.S. and Canadian users, as determined by the numeric Internet address of their computers.
EA is producing Scrabble under a year-old licensing deal with Hasbro Inc., which owns the game's North American rights.
RealNetworks Inc. already has made a version available elsewhere under a deal with Mattel Inc., holder of the rights outside the United States and Canada. That version has fewer than 6,000 daily users, compared with Scrabulous' 450,000.
The split in rights means that Facebook users in, say, San Francisco won't be able to play the authorized version with friends in London, so they might still turn to the unauthorized Scrabulous.
Hasbro officials played down the restrictions, however, saying players tend to reside in the same country, given the world's linguistic differences.
More than six months in development, the EA game will be free and won't carry any ads for now.
EA is trying to generate interest for Scrabble on other computing platforms.
EA recently made it available on its ad-supported Pogo.com site, and it sells versions for Apple Inc.'s iPods for about $5 and for various mobile devices starting at $4.
EA has rights to offer it on digital devices like Nintendo Co.'s Wii game console as well.
Mark Blecher, general manager for digital media and gaming at Hasbro, said his company has been working with EA to make the look and feel consistent across platforms, giving the authorized version what he called an advantage over Scrabulous.
Blecher said the backing of major companies also means better reliability, technical support and production values.
Like the unauthorized version, EA's Scrabble on Facebook is designed to let two people play without being online simultaneously. One player makes a move, then waits until the next time his or her rival logs on.
Scrabulous came from Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, brothers from Calcutta, India, who said they created the game after they could not find an online version of Scrabble that they liked.
While there are authorized Scrabble games online, Scrabulous became one of Facebook's most popular activities because it is free, easy to play and simple to access on Facebook.
Hasbro and Mattel have jointly issued cease-and-desist notices to four unnamed parties involved in the development, hosting and marketing of Scrabulous, prompting its fans to start a "Save Scrabulous" group on Facebook and lodge protests.
Blecher said there were early discussions with Scrabulous' developers about a possible collaboration or acquisition, but EA and Hasbro decided to do their own version from scratch.
Hasbro still considers Scrabulous a violation of its intellectual property, Blecher said, and "we're still evaluating our legal options."
The Agarwalla brothers did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment made after business hours in India.