Tetris is one of the few games that achieves ultimate popularity. It is remarkably simple, yet remarkably difficult. It's been ported to every computer and game console known to man, and has sold millions of cartridges, tapes, and disks across the land.
Besides that, it also led to one of the most interesting legal battles in the history of video games, leading to the famed Tengen version of Tetris and to the downfall of a few companies. It's a pretty cool story, so let's get down to business. Hold on for a second while I set the time machine to cruise control..
Inspired by a pentominoes game he had bought earlier, Alexey Pazhitnov creates Tetris on an Electronica 60 at the Moscow Academy of Science's Computer Center. It is ported to the IBM PC by Vadim Gerasimov and starts spreading around Moscow. Pazhitnov gets a small degree of fame for his program.
The PC version makes its way to Budapest, Hungary, where it is ported to the Apple II and Commodore 64 by Hungarian programmers. These versions catch the eye of Robert Stein, president of the British software house Andromeda. He plans to get the rights to the PC version from Pazhitnov directly, and to get the other versions from the Hungarian programmers. Even before Stein gets in touch with Pazhitnov or the Academy, he sells all the rights to Tetris (except for arcade and handheld versions) to Mirrorsoft UK and its USA affiliate, Spectrum Holobyte, owned by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Foundation.
Stein wires a contract for the rights to Tetris to the Academy. Although Pazhitnov would later say that he did not mean to give a firm go-ahead to the deal, Stein goes ahead and flies to Moscow to sign the contract. He returns empty-handed; the Russians made up for their lack of knowledge of the video game world with obstinance. Stein makes a plan to essentially steal Tetris, to claim it was invented by the Hungarian programmers.
Mirrorsoft Tetris, Atari ST version
Meanwhile, the IBM PC version of Tetris is released by Spectrum Holobyte and Mirrorsoft, causing an instant sensation not only as an obscenely addictive game, but also as "the first game from behind the iron curtain". The game is filled with graphics of Russian themes (battles, Matthias Rust landing his Cessna on Red Square, Yuri Gagarin's first space mission). Stein still does not legally own any rights to Tetris.
Stein presses for and finally gets a license giving him the rights to make Tetris for the IBM PC and compatibles "and any other computer system". Now he owns the copyrights to Tetris, but he still doesn't have a contract with the Russians.
Tetris is released for all home computers. It gets glowing reviews and sells quickly in computer stores. Stein's plan to "steal" the rights to Tetris is foiled when the CBS Evening News interviews Pazhitnov as the inventor of the game. A new company, ELORG (Electronorgtechinca), takes over the negotiations with Stein.
ELORG's director, Alexander Alexinko, realizes that Stein is giving out rights he doesn't have and threatens to cut off any deal. Stein, in turn, threatens to start an international situation.
After months of bickering, Stein signs a contract with ELORG to make Tetris for computers. The contract expressly forbids rights to arcade and handheld versions, and any other mediums "which we did not dream about yet". Meanwhile, Tetris has become the top-selling computer game in England and the United States.
Stein meets with Alexinko in Paris to work out arcade rights to Tetris. Alexinko has quite a different agenda; he hasn't seen any money from Stein at all yet. Meanwhile, Spectrum and Mirrorsoft are sub-licensing their rights. Spectrum gives Bullet-Proof Software the rights to make Tetris video and computer games in Japan; at the same time, Mirrorsoft gives Atari Games the exact same rights in Japan and North America. The two companies start infighting.
Robert Maxwell, owner of both Mirrorsoft and Spectrum, sides with Mirrorsoft on the matter. Atari starts plans to release an arcade and NES game (under the Tengen label). Bullet-Proof Software still has the computer rights in Japan; BPS president Henk Rogers successfully gets the rights to release a video-game version later in the year. Tetris is released for the Famicom in early November 1988; eventually, two million cartridges would be sold.
BPS Tetris for Famicom
The Game Boy is undergoing development. Nintendo of America head Minoru Arakawa wants to make Tetris the pack-in game; he enlists Henk Rogers to get the handheld rights to Tetris for him. Rogers contacts Stein but basically gets stonewalled by him, so Rogers decides to fly to Moscow to get the rights himself. Stein, sensing why Rogers asked for the rights, flies to Moscow as well. Robert Maxwell's son, Kevin, also decides to fly to Moscow to straighten out what is by now a large-scale licensing mess. The three men fly into Moscow at the exact same time.
February 21, 1989
Rogers gets to ELORG representative Evgeni Belikov first. He impresses Alexey Pazhitnov and the Russians, and signs a contract for the handheld rights to Tetris. Afterward, Rogers shows off the Famicom version of Tetris to the Russians. Belikov is shocked. He didn't give Rogers the rights to make a console version! Rogers explains that he got the rights from Tengen; Belikov has never heard of Tengen! Rogers, trying to appease the Russians, tells Belikov the part of the story Stein did not tell him, and writes him a check for royalties on the Tetris cartridges he has already sold, with promises of more checks. He sees that he has a chance to get all the console rights to Tetris, but knows that the much larger Atari will fight him. Fortunately, he has Nintendo on his side!
A reminder: Robert Stein's original agreement was only for computer versions of Tetris. Any other rights he gave out weren't his to sell.
Later, Stein makes it to ELORG. Belikov makes him sign an alteration to the original contract defining computers as "PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard and operation system". Stein misses this line defining computers; he later realizes that it was all a big orchestration on Rogers' part to get his rights from Stein. The next day, he is told that, although he can't get the handheld rights at the moment, he can get the arcade-game rights. He signs the contract for them three days later.
February 22, 1989
Kevin Maxwell visits ELORG. Belikov takes out Rogers' Famicom Tetris cart and asks him about it. Maxwell was unaware that his own company gave some rights to Atari Games until he reads Mirrorsoft's name on the cartridge. Maxwell asserts that the cart is a pirated copy, and returns to his agenda of getting the arcade and handheld Tetris rights. He leaves with only the right to bid on any rights remaining on Tetris.
The final scorecard: Kevin Maxwell walks off with a piece of paper, Robert Stein with the arcade rights, and ELORG with conclusive evidence, thanks to Maxwell's assertion that any Famicom carts are pirates, that it never sold the video game rights. If Maxwell wanted those rights it would have to outbid Nintendo. Henk Rogers has the handheld rights and tells Arakawa at NOA that the console rights are up for grabs. BPS makes a deal to let Nintendo make Tetris for Game Boy; a deal that was ultimately worth between $5 and 10 million to BPS.
March 15, 1989
Henk Rogers returns to Moscow and makes a gigantic offer for the console rights to Tetris on behalf of Nintendo - an offer that, although undisclosed, was high enough that Mirrorsoft did not try to match it. Arakawa and NOA chief executive officer Howard Lincoln fly to the USSR.
March 22, 1989
A contract for the home videogame rights is finalized with Nintendo, which insists on a clause that the Russians would come to America to testify in the legal battle that would undoubtedly ensue after word of the contract comes out. The advance cash for ELORG is reported to be around $3 to 5 million. Belikov wires Mirrorsoft saying that neither it, Andromeda, or Tengen were authorized to distribute Tetris on video game systems, and that those rights are now given to Nintendo. The Nintendo and BPS executives have a party that night in their Moscow hotel room.
March 31, 1989
Howard Lincoln gleefully faxes Atari Games a cease-and-desist order to stop manufacturing any version of Tetris for the NES. Both Atari and Robert Maxwell become furious. Tengen responds to Nintendo on April 7th that they completely own the rights to home versions of Tetris.
April 13, 1989
Tengen files an application for a copyright of the "audiovisual work, the underlying computer code and the soundtrack" of Tetris for the NES. The application does not mention Alexey Pazhitnov or Nintendo's rights to the game.
Robert Maxwell, meanwhile, is using his vast media empire to try to get Tetris back. He contacts both the Soviet and British governments to intervene on the Tetris matter. Infighting between the Communist party and ELORG begins, and Maxwell gets a promise from no less than Mikhail Gorbachev that he "should no longer worry about the Japanese company".
In late April, Lincoln flies back to Moscow and learns of ELORG's being put upon by the government. In the middle of the night, he receives a call from NOA that Tengen has sued Nintendo.
The next day, he starts interviewing Belikov, Pazhitnov, and many others at ELORG, to make sure that Nintendo's case for the Tetris home rights is airtight. NOA immediately countersues Tengen, and evidence begins to be gathered.
May 17, 1989
Tengen releases their version of Tetris with a full-page ad in USA Today, despite the coming legal battle.
The court case between Tengen and Nintendo begins.
The battle mostly hinged on one matter: Was the Nintendo Entertainment System a computer, under the definition in the contract that Belikov made Stein sign, or a video-game system? Atari argued that the NES was meant to be a computer, due to its expansion port and the existence of a computer network for the Famicom (short for "Family Computer") in Japan. Nintendo's argument was more to the point: the Russians at ELORG had never had the intention of selling the video game rights to Tetris; the definition of "computer" in Stein's contract proved it.
June 15, 1989
A hearing is held about the injunctions Tengen and Nintendo had given each other to cease manufacture and sale of their respective versions of Tetris. Judge Fern Smith decides that neither Mirrorsoft nor Spectrum Holobyte had been granted the video game rights, so therefore it could not have legally given those rights to Tengen. Nintendo's injunction request is granted.
June 21, 1989
Tengen's version of Tetris is taken off the shelves, and manufacture of the Tengen version is ceased. Several hundred thousand copies of Tengen Tetris, sitting in their boxes, lie in a warehouse.
Nintendo's version of Tetris for the NES is released. About three million are sold in the US. At the same time, the Game Boy, with Tetris as the pack-in, is being sold. America gets Tetrisized.
This ends the main history of Tetris; the lawsuit between Nintendo and Atari would continue to drag on and on and on (it was finally finished up by 1993).
Atari Games still released an arcade version of Tetris, selling about twenty thousand units. Atari Games was recently bought up by Williams/WMS; the fate of the Tengen Tetris carts lying in warehouses is unknown. In all likelihood they were bulldozed since Tengen could not legally get rid of them any other way. If the figures are to be believed, there are about one hundred thousand Tengen Tetris cartridges floating around; a less-than-average run by NES standards, but still nowhere near an impossible cart to find.
Robert Stein made, in total, about $250,000 on Tetris. He could have made a great deal more, of course, but Stein had trouble getting Atari and Mirrorsoft to pay him royalties for the (bogus) rights he sold them. Spectrum Holobyte had to organize another deal with ELORG just to hold on to the computer rights to Tetris.
Robert Maxwell's large-scale media organization collapsed in the midst of the struggle, and Robert Maxwell himself died suspiciously as questions rose about whether he was entirely honest about his business dealings. As a result, Mirrorsoft UK faded away as well.
The big winners of the whole affair were Henk Rogers, president of BPS, and Nintendo themselves. How much did Tetris make for Nintendo? That's difficult to answer, considering that Tetris being the pack-in for the Game Boy enticed customers to buy the Game Boy.. and from there, buy other Game Boy carts. Bringing all this into account, the figure can go up and up and up. About 30 million Game Boy Tetris carts have been made.
As for the Russians, no one made big money from Tetris except for the Soviet government. As the USSR broke up, the people at ELORG and the Academy scattered across the country.
Alexey Pazhitnov made nearly no money from Tetris itself. ELORG made, then cancelled a deal that would have given him merchandising rights to Tetris. Still, Pazhitnov was happy that the game he created became famous world-wide, and he did get an 286-clone from the Academy as a reward; he also had a much nicer apartment than most of his colleagues. In 1996, with the financial backing of Henk Rogers, he organized The Tetris Company LLC, and is now finally getting royalties for his creation.