'Mr. Scrabble' Seeks $1 Million From Hasbro


MANHATTAN (CN) - A publicist claims in court that Hasbro owes him $1 million in commissions for boosting sales of Scrabble, the 76-year-old board game.
     John Williams Jr., his wife Jane and their firm Fifth Street Productions claim in New York County Supreme Court that from 1982 to 2013 they provided brand marketing, publicity and other services to promote Scrabble, including running national tournaments and leading a national association of devoted players.
     Scrabble was created by architect Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938. It was based on an earlier word game called Lexiko. Butts' innovation was to add a 15-by-15-inch game board configured to look like another popular game, the crossword puzzle.
     In 1948, Newtown, Conn. resident James Brunot bought the rights to manufacture the game in exchange for granting Butts a royalty on every one sold. Brunot later sold those rights to the Long Island, N.Y.-based firm Selchow and Righter, which had rejected the game when Butts originally tried to sell its rights to them.
     In its second year of production, the company sold nearly 4 million Scrabble board games. Today the game is sold in more than 120 countries, in more than 25 languages. More than 150 million sets have been sold worldwide.
     Williams claims he began working on the Scrabble account during the years that Selchow and Righter manufactured the game, and he continued to do so after the company was bought by Colleco in the mid-1980s.
     Hasbro, a toy company founded in Pawtucket, R.I., January 1926, acquired the manufacturing rights to Scrabble when Colleco filed for bankruptcy and was forced to sell all of its assets.
     Even then, however, Williams' connection with the board game and his efforts on its behalf continued, the plaintiffs say.
     "Since 1987, one of Williams's principal responsibilities was to administer the National Scrabble Association, which coordinated with local clubs in the United States and Canada to organize and publicize Scrabble tournaments, including the National Scrabble Championship," according to the complaint. "Beginning in 1987, Williams served as Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association and became the official spokesperson for the Scrabble board game.
     "To prepare for his duties and role with respect to the National Scrabble Association, Williams immersed himself in the rules of the game and studied strategies tournament-caliber players employ to win. As part of these efforts, Williams spent two years training under Joe Edley, a three-time National Scrabble Championship winner. Williams himself played in numerous tournaments, ultimately competing at the expert level."
     During his involvement with the game, Williams says, he co-founded the World Scrabble Championship, established the National School Scrabble Program - an initiative in which the Scrabble board game is used as a teaching tool in the classroom - co-wrote a book, "Everything Scrabble," and wrote another, "Word Freak," the delved in depth into what he calls "the Scrabble cultural phenomenon."
     Williams says through these efforts and others - including creating and co-producing five ESPN Scrabble tournaments - he became so synonymous with the game that the public, media and even Hasbro executives often referred to him as "Mr. Scrabble."
     Before 2005, Hasbro paid Williams and later Fifth Street for their services on a monthly basis based on projected annual budgets. After 2005, Williams says, he and Hasbro memorialized the relationship in a written contract, which established a new compensation structure and "contemplated annual renewals by mutual agreement of the parties."
     Among other things, the agreement provided Fifth Street with a bonus, beginning in 2005, of $10,000 for every 1 percent increase in retail sales levels of each Scrabble product line compared to the prior year's sales.
     In the event the sales for any Scrabble product line dipped below the 2004 sales level for that line, then the 2004 sales level would be used as the benchmark for purposes of calculating the bonus.
     This agreement remained in place until July 1, 2013, when Fifth Street terminated the agreement, Williams says.
     "Yet, Fifth Street was never paid any of the bonuses it earned," he says.
     Williams claims analysis of Hasbro's accounting documents will show a cumulative bonus due to Fifth Street in excess of $1 million, based on sales for the Scrabble board game, the new Scrabble games and the newly branded Scrabble games, as well as fees earned by Hasbro from licensing the Scrabble Marks.
     He seeks more than $1 million in damages for breach of contract and promissory estoppels.
     The Williamses are represented by Michael Rakower and Melissa Yang of Rakower Lupkin.