The Tetris Company – Copyright

What’s all this? This page describes how The Tetris Company is trying to remove all freeware & shareware tetris-style games from distribution. They are claiming that they have copyright on “the look and feel” and “trade dress” of Tetris. This is not legal and is an invalid claim.

The story. Many freeware and shareware tetris game developers and distributors have received threatening e-mails from “The Tetris Company” about their game being a copyright infringement.. I received one such e-mail in December 1997 in regards to my freeware tetris clone “Bedtris”. I subsequently changed the name to “Bedter” and put in disclaimers that it was not an official “Tetris” game. On the 18th of February 1999 I received another e-mail that states that I am still infringing their “look and feel” copyright.
However, I left the game available on this webpage and as of yet (Feb 2011) I have received no further threats.

Other author’s tales:

  • Pierre Phaneuf tried to do everything correctly for his tetris game and The Tetris Company never responded.
Hasbro had sued a number of retro games companies over alledged copyright violations. One of those companies it sued, Webfoot Technologies has settled out of court. One of the owners of Webfoot posted a comment on slashdot and they gave me permission to repost that comment here.
US Copyright Law An idea or concept can not be copyrighted. The Tetris Company’s code, graphics, music (etc) is copyrighted, but the actual concept can not be. They can copyright the written rules to the game, but they can’t actually copyright the generic rules themselves. This means if I copied out a section of their HOW TO PLAY manual I would be infringing copyright. At www.bitlaw.com they say the following:

“Ideas, procedures, principles, discoveries, and devices are all specifically excluded from copyright protection. As stated in the Copyright Act:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

Ideas can be patented, however The Tetris Company is not claiming a patent on Tetris. They are claiming a “look and feel” copyright.

We can view the records of the US Copyright Office via their webpage. We get to a telnet site where we can look up copyright records. The Tetris Company does not appear to be listed anywhere throughout these records.
I have requested from The Tetris Company to identify their specific copyright that we are infringeing. I have not heard from them?regarding?this?matter.

International Copyright Law. I live in Melbourne, Australia. How exactly does US Copyright law hold over me? Is there special International Copyright Laws that would apply in this case? The Australian Copyright Council have a Information Sheet about Computer Software & Copyright (pdf), which seems to be on-par with the US law. They also have a Information Sheet about Games & copyright (pdf), which re-iterates the point that the concept can’t be copyrighted, but the expression of the concept (ie rules) can be.

“Look and feel” cases

In March 1995, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the 1993 decision of Judge Keeton of Boston in Lotus’ lawsuit against Borland. Lotus sued Borland for copyright infringement on Lotus 1-2-3. In its decision the appeals court determined that Lotus’ menu structures, incorporated into Borland’s Quatro Pro spreadsheet, are “an uncopyrightable method of operation”.

Apple Computer sued Microsoft and Hewlett Packard for implementing a window system whose displays partially resemble those of the Macintosh system. Subsequently Xerox sued Apple for implementing the Macintosh system, which derives some general concepts from the earlier Xerox Star system. These suits try to broaden the Lotus decision and establish copyright on a large class of user interfaces. The Xerox lawsuit was dismissed because of a technicality.

In 1982 Atari took NAP (North American Philips Consumer Electronics Corp) to court for their game “K. C. Munchkin” which they claimed was a copyright infringement to “PAC-MAN”. The count found that Munchkin had captured the “total concept and feel” of Atari’s game…

Apparently Capcom tried suing a company claiming the company’s game “Fighter’s History” had the look and feel of their “Street Fighter” games. Capcom ended up loosing.