Games Law History: the Tetris saga

Legal battles have been (and still are) integral to the development of the modern video games industry.  So, I thought that I’d write a periodic series of posts looking at major legal battles in the industry, kicking off with the Tetris saga between Nintendo and Atari, which started around this time in summer 1989. 

A quick summary of Tetris:

This is Tetris (specifically the Gameboy version, chosen because it was the first Tetris game I ever played).  If you do not recognise it immediately, then you can read more here (while putting in your fingers in your ears to block out my loud tutting at you).
The facts
I’d love to give you the full and torturous facts of the long-running Tetris saga, but Atari HQ have already written it up here.  The (legally) interesting fact that emerges is that the battle over the Tetris IP was not an intellectual property issue at all – this was a fight over contracts and contractual interpretation.  I’ll try to summarise it briefly below (with the proviso that the facts are incredibly complex, so if anyone has any corrections/insights into all this, let me know):
  • In June 1985, Alexey Pazhitnov created Tetris on an Electronica 60 while at the Moscow Academy of Science’s Computer Center.  It was soon after ported to the IBM PC and then to the Apple II and Commodore 64.
  • During the mid 80s, the game found its way to the West, where a UK developer tried to acquire the rights to Tetris and (even though he was unsuccessful) he ‘sold’ the rights on to Mirrorsoft in the UK and Spectrum Holobyte in the USA (both companies were controlled by the infamous Robert Maxwell).  The game was released in the West to rave reviews.
  • In 1988, Mirrorsoft sub-licenced Bullet Proof Software to make Tetris games in Japan, while Spectrum sub-licenced Atari with the same rights for Japan and North America.  Cue infighting between the two Maxwell companies (which reportedly Maxwell himself had to be involved in to sort things out).
  • Atari’s subsidiary Tengen released arcade and NES versions of Tetris (known as “TETЯIS: The Soviet Mind Game”).  Bullet Proof also released a Tetris game for the Famicom (the Japanese version/name for the NES).  Nintendo became very interested in releasing Tetris for the forthcoming Gameboy and in controlling Tetris on the NES, too.
  • There was by this stage a big licensing mess over who controlled which rights in the Tetris game across different platforms.  In early 1989, all the interested parties started negotiations with each other and with the Russian entity (known as Electronorgtechinca, or Elorg) which now asserted it owned all the Tetris rights.  Various offers were put forward to control the Tetris IP.
  • Nintendo cut the Gordian knot by reportedly making a massive offer to Elorg for all the rights in Tetris (as well as Elorg’s support in the inevitable future lawsuits).  Elorg accepted.
  • In March 1989, Nintendo then served a cease and desist letter on Tengen to force it to stop selling its versions of Tetris on the NES.  Tengen responded in kind.
  • Tengen, Atari and its parent (the Maxwell empire) didn’t take this lying down.  They began lobbying for control of the IP and, at the same time, Tengen applied to register its copyright of the Tetris IP.  
  • April 1989: Tengen sued Nintendo of America (NOA), and NOA countersued, over the issue of ownership of the Tetris IP.
  • June 1989: the Tengen v NOA court case began in the USA.  The issue essentially was the proper interpretation of one of the original contracts signed by Elorg which licenced out some of the Tetris IP rights.  
  • The US court decided that, since Mirrorsoft nor Spectrum never had held rights in the Tetris IP (see above on that one), they did not have any Tetris rights to grant to Atari/Tengen.  The court therefore found in NOA’s favour and granted an injunction requiring Tengen to halt sales of its Tetris games.
  • July 1989: Nintendo released Tetris for the NES and (soon after) for the Gameboy.  The Gameboy version alone sold over 33 million units.  In financial terms, Nintendo had comprehensively won the battle for Tetris.
  • The legal issues dragged on for some time, focusing in particular on Atari’s release of a Tetris arcade machine.  Other game companies also came on to the scene from time to time (such as Sega’s release of a Tetris game for the MegaDrive) but over time the link between Ninteno and Tetris became well-estabished.
  • A quick footnote: in 1996 Pazhitnov, who famously had made virtually no money from the exploitation of Tetris so far, put together The Tetris Company LLC to control the Tetris IP going forward.  It still operates today (most recently, it forced Google to remove Tetris clones from the Android market).
Was this a once-off, never to be repeated kind of battle?
The Tetris battle came at a formative time in the modern video games industry and helped to shape the fortunes of Atari, Nintendo and other games giants.  It was also largely a product of the confused way in which legal matters were sometimes handled in the games industry at that point. Since then, the games industry has of course become a lot smarter at handling control of games IP from both a contractual and IP perspective. 
But, that doesn’t mean that the legal issues raised in the Tetris saga have been put to rest.  Contractual disputes are endemic in all industries, including the games industry.  In fact, since Tetris, there have been huge numbers of contractual disputes over games and they will keep on arising in the future, since all contracts for particularly valuable products become particularly susceptible to abuse.  
Need an example?  Here you go: Jason West and Vince Zampella v Activision.  This is an ongoing US legal battle for the control of the Modern Warfare IP and, in legal terms, it is a contractual battle just like the Tengen/Nintendo lawsuit.  Clearly, there are factual differences between the two lawsuits, but maybe not as much as you might think: imagine if West and Zampella had released their own competing version of Modern Warfare after they left Activision, meaning that a judge would have to decide whether the IP resided with West/Zampella or Activision (just as the judge had to do between Tengen and Nintendo).
More generally, bear in mind also that the games market is still fragmented over multiple platforms and there is therefore a real potential for different companies to release very similar games over different (or even the same) platform in the future – in fact, we can already see this happening in the mobile and social games sectors of the games market.
So, with that in mind…
 Lessons learned from the Tetris saga:
  • PROPER LICENCING IS ESSENTIAL.  The problems arose largely because several people realised that Tetris was hot stuff at the same time and tried separately in different ways to get the rights, which resulted in differing agreements saying different things.  Cue legal uncertainty -> lawsuits.
  • What should have happened: the first person on the scene or the highest bidder (as appropriate) should have secured a comprehensive and exclusive licencing agreement, covering all territories and all platforms using a combination of specific and general language, stating expressly what the licencee can and cannot do, setting out clearly the operative provisions (royalty payments etc), a dispute resolution mechanism and – crucially a series of warranties, representations and indemnities to give the licencee comfort that he has an exclusive licence and can sue both the licencor and the third party if any other licences are handed out without his approval.
  • If you do find that an infringing licence has been granted, or that a third party is straightforwardly knocking off your IP without a licence, then – as Nintendo did here – you will need to take legal action promptly to protect your IP/contractual rights.
  • Leaving the legal battle to one side, make sure you win the financial battle (selling more units of your game than the other guy does with his) as well as the PR battle (making sure everyone knows the game is yours, not his).
Image credits:
– Pic 1:
– Pic 2: Loot Ninja
– Pic 3: WikiMedia
Follow us at or subscribe to our weekly email newsletter here

17 thoughts on “Games Law History: the Tetris saga”

  1. How many millions spent, essentially on translating nemo dat quod non habet? Great blog, btw, from a fellow gamer/lawyer.

  2. I would like to show my appreciation to this writer for bailing me out of this crisis. Because of exploring throughout the the web and meeting techniques which are not pleasant, I figured my entire life was well over. Living without the presence of solutions to the problems you’ve resolved through your good post is a critical case, as well as the ones that could have in a negative way affected my career if I had not noticed your web site. The competence and kindness in playing with all the pieces was priceless. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t encountered such a point like this. It’s possible to at this moment look ahead to my future. Thanks very much for the specialized and sensible help. I will not be reluctant to propose the website to anybody who needs guide about this subject.

  3. Thanks for all your valuable labor on this site. My aunt really likes participating in investigations and it’s obvious why. Many of us hear all regarding the lively manner you deliver priceless information through this blog and foster response from people on this concept then our own simple princess is learning a lot of things. Take pleasure in the remaining portion of the year. You’re carrying out a good job.

  4. I in addition to my buddies were examining the nice things on your website then all of a sudden I had a horrible suspicion I never thanked the blog owner for those strategies. Most of the ladies appeared to be certainly thrilled to read through all of them and have in effect without a doubt been using these things. Many thanks for genuinely very kind and then for making a decision on such decent topics most people are really desperate to be aware of. My personal honest apologies for not expressing gratitude to earlier.

  5. Thank you so much for giving everyone remarkably terrific opportunity to read articles and blog posts from this website. It is usually so good and stuffed with a lot of fun for me personally and my office colleagues to visit the blog at the very least 3 times weekly to see the new things you have got. Not to mention, we are always amazed considering the brilliant tips and hints you serve. Certain 3 tips in this post are indeed the most impressive I’ve had.

  6. Thank you so much for giving everyone an extraordinarily splendid opportunity to read from this web site. It really is so superb and also stuffed with amusement for me personally and my office acquaintances to search the blog not less than thrice in 7 days to see the fresh tips you have got. Of course, I’m just usually motivated with the sensational pointers you serve. Certain two ideas in this post are undoubtedly the finest I have had.

  7. Thanks for your whole hard work on this web page. My mother really loves working on research and it’s obvious why. Most people learn all of the compelling form you offer effective ideas on this web site and foster response from website visitors on this concept so our favorite princess is certainly understanding a great deal. Take advantage of the rest of the year. You’re performing a brilliant job.

  8. Thank you so much for providing individuals with remarkably nice opportunity to check tips from here. It really is very pleasurable and also jam-packed with a great time for me personally and my office acquaintances to search your blog on the least 3 times in a week to learn the newest issues you have got. And lastly, I’m so always satisfied with your dazzling things you serve. Some 3 points on this page are absolutely the most beneficial I have had.

  9. I wanted to compose you the little observation to be able to thank you very much the moment again for those remarkable strategies you have shown on this page. It is particularly open-handed of people like you to give easily precisely what some people could have offered for an e book to help with making some money on their own, notably since you could have tried it if you ever decided. The good ideas likewise served to provide a fantastic way to comprehend other people online have similar desire like my own to know very much more in regard to this condition. I know there are some more pleasurable situations up front for those who go through your blog.

  10. I together with my guys were actually viewing the excellent things located on the blog and then instantly got an awful suspicion I never thanked the web blog owner for them. Most of the young men had been consequently very interested to read through them and already have very much been taking advantage of them. Thank you for genuinely so helpful and for figuring out such ideal resources millions of individuals are really desirous to discover. My very own honest apologies for not saying thanks to earlier.

  11. I’m just writing to make you know what a terrific encounter our girl undergone going through yuor web blog. She discovered plenty of details, which included what it is like to possess an amazing helping heart to have certain people completely have an understanding of several hard to do subject matter. You undoubtedly exceeded people’s expected results. I appreciate you for supplying these important, dependable, explanatory and also unique thoughts on the topic to Tanya.

  12. I intended to post you one very little observation to help say thanks a lot once again just for the magnificent things you’ve provided on this website. It is simply strangely generous of you to deliver easily what most people could have advertised for an electronic book to help make some profit for their own end, precisely seeing that you might well have done it in the event you wanted. Those thoughts in addition acted like the easy way to know that some people have a similar dreams the same as mine to find out very much more in respect of this issue. I am certain there are numerous more pleasurable instances up front for those who browse through your website.

  13. I wish to voice my respect for your generosity in support of those who should have guidance on that study. Your real dedication to getting the message all through appears to be really effective and have consistently made men and women just like me to realize their goals. Your entire insightful tutorial entails a whole lot to me and somewhat more to my fellow workers. Many thanks; from each one of us.

  14. I as well as my pals came taking note of the excellent secrets found on your web blog and then then I got an awful suspicion I had not expressed respect to the site owner for those strategies. Those young men happened to be so very interested to read them and have in effect clearly been tapping into these things. Appreciate your turning out to be so accommodating as well as for pick out this form of helpful subject areas millions of individuals are really desperate to discover. My personal honest regret for not saying thanks to you sooner.

  15. I enjoy you because of each of your effort on this site. My aunt enjoys participating in investigations and it’s obvious why. My spouse and i hear all of the dynamic means you produce informative solutions via your website and therefore increase participation from website visitors on the subject so our own daughter is without question starting to learn so much. Have fun with the rest of the new year. You’re the one carrying out a really great job.

  16. I want to express my appreciation to you for bailing me out of this particular incident. Right after checking through the world-wide-web and meeting ideas that were not productive, I figured my life was well over. Living minus the approaches to the issues you’ve fixed by means of your main report is a crucial case, and ones which may have badly affected my career if I had not encountered your web site. Your personal understanding and kindness in dealing with all the things was crucial. I don’t know what I would have done if I had not come upon such a solution like this. It’s possible to at this point look ahead to my future. Thanks very much for this skilled and result oriented help. I won’t hesitate to suggest your web blog to anybody who wants and needs direction about this matter.

  17. My spouse and i were absolutely delighted Peter could carry out his basic research through your precious recommendations he grabbed through the site. It is now and again perplexing just to find yourself offering instructions that many the others might have been making money from. We really keep in mind we need the website owner to thank for this. Most of the explanations you have made, the straightforward web site menu, the relationships you can assist to engender – it’s got everything impressive, and it’s really aiding our son and the family feel that this subject matter is enjoyable, which is unbelievably important. Many thanks for the whole lot!

Comments are closed.