Although the idea of a Tetris film can inevitably lead us to think of the questionable Pixels, the adaptation of that mythical YouTube video that became popular in 2010, but the truth is that the premise of Jon S. Baird’s new film (The Fat Man and the Skinny Man, Cass) is very interesting.
As it happened with the creation of Facebook and its legal battle in Fincher’s Social Network, Tetris’ film will narrate the fight for the rights of Alexei Pajitnov’s mythical video game. A pitched battle between Japanese and American companies and the Russian government of a USSR with the hours counted.
The controversial property of Tetris
The origins of Tetris are already a fairly hackneyed story and, in one way or another, many of us have heard about how a young Pajitnov shaped the idea of Tetris during his time at the Moscow Academy of Computer Science. The game turns out to be a genius that soon ends up jumping from its original machine, the Electronica 60, to IBM computers.
With the game expanding its popularity towards the west, the idea reaches the ears of Robert Stein, president of the Andromeda Software company that, to a large extent, was dedicated to serving as an intermediary between the Eastern Bloc and the rest of Europe so that programmers from the USSR could take their creations outside the Soviet Union.
Stein’s idea is to acquire the publishing rights to Tetris from Pajitnov and the Academy, but before even contacting them, he sells the rights to Tetris to Robert Maxwell for his English company Mirrorsoft and its American subsidiary Spectrum Holobyte.
Stein travels to Moscow to close a deal with the Russians, but returns empty-handed and begins to devise a plan to take over the rights. Meanwhile, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte launch their version of the video game, selling it as “the first game behind the Iron Curtain. Needless to say, it becomes a success.
With Tetris triumphing outside their borders, the Russians, through a Russian entity called Electronorgtechinca, finally agree to give Stein the creation rights for computers, but not for arcade machines or portable versions, and Mirrorsoft and Spectrum try to take advantage of their recent success by licensing the rights of Tetris to other companies.
Mirrorsoft licenses the rights to Tetris to Atari for exploitation rights in Japan and the United States, and Spectrum does the same with Bullet-Proof Software for publication in Japan. Two companies from the same company selling rights they do not have for exclusive exploitation to different companies. The soap opera of Robert Maxwell’s companies begins to squirm.
Atari launches an arcade version and another one for NES from the hand of its subsidiary Tengen, and Bullet-Proof does the same in the Japanese market with Tetris for Famicom. The game reaches the ears of Nintendo, who decide that they will enter the fight for the rights to bring the game to NES and its next console, Gameboy.
The legal battle of Tetris
Negotiations for the rights to Tetris begin to move between all parties involved, including Electronorgtechinca, which claims to have all the rights to the game.
In a meeting in Moscow destined to clarify the situation, the envoy of Nintendo -Henk Rogers, the president of Bullet-Proof that was already succeeding with the game for Famicom-, manages to gain the favor of the Russians and gets the portable rights of Tetris in the first meeting of the day. The second meeting, on the other hand, becomes a little more problematic. Rogers shows to the Russians the game for Famicom and, as it was expected, they get into a rage.
They had only given the rights for the exploitation in PC to Stein, but after explaining Rogers that the Maxwell companies are the ones that have originated the mess, they manage to reach an agreement for the exploitation of the license in laptops and the console ones end up staying in the air.
After that, Stein arrives, who is forced to sign a clarification in the contract in which they emphasize that a PC is a jalopy with a processor, monitor, hard disk and keyboard. Once the situation was resolved, they decided to give Stein the exploitation rights for the arcade.
And then the Maxwell family enters the scene, who have also gone there to close deals. The Russians show the cartridge that Rogers had shown them and they hide saying that they were completely unaware of the situation and that the game must be some pirate copy. They leave there empty-handed, but the right to bid for the remaining rights to Tetris.
A month after the meetings, Rogers returns to Moscow and manages to get all the rights of Tetris with the Nintendo wallet and, as a gift, the possibility that Electronorgtechinca will declare in favor of the Japanese company in the more than probable legal battle that is to come.
And boy does it come. Atari’s Tengen registers the Tetris patent, Nintendo sends Atari a cease and desist letter to stop selling the game’s NES cartridges, and ultimately Nintendo and Tengen end up in court to decide ownership of the license.
In the trial it is finally declared that, as neither Mirrorsoft nor Spectrum had the rights to Tetris could not have sold the license to Tengen and Atari, so Nintendo is the only company that can exploit the license and the rest of the versions must stop selling. Despite this, the licensing problems continued for a while here and there until in 1996 Alexei Pajitnov, who until then had not seen a penny of its creation, founded The Tetris Company and managed to get the rights to his game. Even today, Pajitnov is forced to fight legal battles to prevent the idea from being copied by clones.