Tetris® and The Tetris Company

by Damian Yerrick

Face it. If you've used a computer for more than a year, fifty bucks says you've played the game of falling tetraminoes. You've probably played a version called Tetris, from a company called Elorg (in full, V/O Elektronorgtechnica). A newer version would probably be from Blue Planet Software Inc. And you've also presumably seen other versions, called Bedter, Bricks 2000, or Tetanus.

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, Russian computer scientists Alexey Pajitnov and Vadim Gerasimov created a game where tetraminoes fall into a glass. They called it Tetris. Years later, Pajitnov and Blue Planet head Henk Rogers formed The Tetris Company LLC to license the rights to Tetris.

But exactly what kind of government-granted monopoly (I abhor the term intellectual property) does TTC actually own? Pajitnov created one polymino game, not the idea of omino puzzles. That was the ancient Romans' idea. Pajitnov was the first to make ominoes fall on a computer; I'll give him credit for that. But that doesn't mean that no one else can computerize falling tetrominoes.

Some Tetris clones are illegal; however, many are completely legal in that they infringe on none of the three basic government-granted monopoly rights:

  1. Tetris is a registered trademark of The Tetris Company LLC. Trademarks identify the source of a product. And it should be pretty obvious that a product called Tetris® comes from the Tetris Company. If you call your tetramino game Tetris, you are diluting TTC's trademark and can be sued in a court of law. However, if your game's name sounds nothing like "Tetris" (in Pin Eight's case, does freepuzzlearenaTM sound like "Tetris"?), then you're in the clear. Sorry Henk...

    For a while, Henk claimed that the look and feel of falling tetramino games was protected under trade dress law. Bzzt! Wrong; thanks for playing. Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc. set a precedent that only non-functional distinctive elements can be protected as trade dress. Because the game rules are functional elements, they're not eligible for trade dress protection. Sorry Henk...

  2. Copyright protects original expression of ideas. In the case of computer programs such as falling tetramino puzzles, the expression is in the form of source code (a literary work) and the graphics and sound (an audiovisual work). The expression can also take the form of a description of how to play the game. The copyright on the original PC Tetris source code belongs to Pajitnov (co-founder of TTC) and Gerasimov (who disagrees with TTC's stance; see also http://vadim.www.media.mit.edu/Tetris.htm) until 70 years after they die.

    However, you have little to worry about here. I doubt that you will gain access to source code by Pajitnov or by Blue Planet developers; you are safe there because the "clean room" method of cloning a program without knowledge of source code is lawful. So is implementing an open specification. But if you rip the graphics or sounds from Tetris®, or you distribute ROM images or other unauthorized copies of a Tetris® product, you are infringing copyright and may be sued in a court of law.

    Against non-"Tetris" tetramino clones, TTC claims a so-called look and feel copyright. This is bunk. Had 1-2-3 spreadsheet maker Lotus won its suit against Quattro Pro developer Borland, or had Apple successfully sued Microsoft (who is more evil than Satan himself, but that's another story), it might be a bit different, but sorry Henk...

  3. Unlike Dr. Mario, which may be covered under U.S. Patent 5,265,888, there is no United States or international patent on any part of the processes or methods involved in the game of falling tetraminoes. And there never will be. In fact, Tetris.com has never given notice of any patents on falling tetramino games. Sorry Henk...

The same can be said for ZoopTM or any other video game. If you unfairly copied (without the author's consent) the source code, the graphics, the sounds, or the name, you broke the law. If you don't believe me, would you believe these pamphlets (at http://www.loc.gov/copyright/circs/circ61.pdf and http://www.loc.gov/copyright/fls/fl108.pdf) published by the Library of Congress, the agency that operates the United States Copyright Office?

In other words, all The Tetris Company really owns is the word TETRIS.

Don't get me wrong, TTC/Blue Planet Software makes some decent stuff (e.g. The Next Tetris and The New Tetris), but the assertion that TTC own the idea of falling blocks is nothing but crap. Sending empty threat letters to shareware action puzzle game developers can be compared to pissing into the wind.

More Tetris-like games can be found at dmoz in Games : Video Games : Genres : Puzzle : Tetris : Clones.

Damian Yerrick owns and operates Pin Eight, a publisher of open-source video game software. www.pineight.com

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