8 August 2023CopyrightSarah Speight

Tech writer sues Apple TV+ and others over Tetris film

Journalist accuses producers of film starring Taron Egerton of copying his 2016 book | Film has “glaring similarities” with author's non-fiction work based on the ’80s video game | Tetris Company also accused of preventing author from securing licensing deals.

The screenwriter and producers of the Apple TV+ film Tetris, which premiered in March this year, face a copyright infringement suit by a journalist and author who published the book The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World in 2016.

Dan Ackerman, editor-in-chief of tech news website Gizmodo and former editorial director at tech platform CNET, accuses screenwriter Noah Pink, Apple (the platform and distributor for the film), The Tetris Company and others of copying his non-fiction book.

He also accuses The Tetris Company—which manages and licenses the Tetris brand to third parties—and its CEO Maya Rogers, of preventing him from securing licensing deals.

In the complaint, filed yesterday, August 8, in New York, Ackerman alleges that the film Tetris copies material elements from his book with “glaring similarities”.

For example, the author places Henk Rogers—who secured the rights to distribute the Tetris video game on games consoles and is the managing director of The Tetris Company—as the protagonist of his story, which the film also does.

The lawsuit details sections of the film that allegedly copy elements of Ackerman’s book, such as: “The film opens with the events from Chapter 13, ‘Tetris Takes Las Vegas’; and: “The scene where Henk’s guide turns out to be a KGB agent mirrors Mr Ackerman’s narrative invention from page 181…”

Tetris is “substantially similar in almost all material respects including specific chapters and pages of said book that were simply adopted from the book to the film, without plaintiff’s knowledge, authorisation, or consent,” Ackerman argues.

According to the complaint, Ackerman’s book took a “unique approach” to writing about the history of the Tetris  computer game, combining its history with his own research to create a narrative non-fiction book in the style of a Cold War spy thriller.

What sets the book apart is that it “concentrates on the surrounding narrative, action sequences, and adversarial relationship between the players” rather than, like other books and writings, “emphasising the actual gameplay and fans”, said the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, this was the “identical approach” that the defendants adopted for the Tetris film, “without notable material distinction, but often resonating the exact same feel, tone, approach, and scenes as the book introduced several years prior.”

Refusal to license

Ackerman also accuses The Tetris Company and  Maya Rogers—daughter of Henk Rogers and an executive producer on Tetris—of refusing to license any Tetris IP related to any film or television projects being pursued or related to his book.

“This was done so that they could pursue their own film project based upon Ackerman’s book to the exclusion of Ackerman, and without compensating or crediting him, and so Rogers and Tetris could claim the project as their own original creation,” said the complaint.

Maya Rogers and The Tetris Company also allegedly sent cease-and-desist letters to Ackerman, threatening to take legal action against his agent “if he continued to shop Mr Ackerman’s own book to option for film and television projects”.

“As such, defendants Rogers, [the] Tetris Company and Noah Pink engaged in unfair competition through fraud or bad faith, and misappropriated the labours and expenditures of Ackerman for their own unjust and unlawful gain, and at the expense of Ackerman’s own opportunities.”

Noah Pink, screenwriter of Tetris, was “unknown within the film industry and had no screenwriting credits to his name”, according to the lawsuit.

Ackerman is claiming damages due to alleged unfair competition and seeks damages equal to 3% of the total production budget of the Tetris film.

The complaint was filed by Ackerman’s counsel, Kevin and Zachary Landau of The Landau Group, at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Counsel have not yet appeared for the defendants.

Bitter rights race

Tetris is a puzzle video game created in 1985 by Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian software engineer, who later founded The Tetris Company.

It proved to be one of the world’s most popular computer games, having been published by several companies for multiple platforms such as Game Boy and Nintendo’s NES.

At the time that Ackerman’s book was published, the game had earned more than $1 billion in sales.

Ackerman describes the game as “eventually breaking through the Iron Curtain into the West. British, American, and Japanese moguls waged a bitter fight over the rights, sending their fixers racing around the globe to secure backroom deals, while a secretive Soviet organisation named ELORG chased down the game’s growing global profits.”

In an interview for CBS News, Ackerman half-jokingly describes the ‘Tetris effect’ as a “medical condition where after playing games such as Tetris or Bejeweled or anything involving repetitive, geometric activity, you close your eyes or you look at a wall and you still see the shapes. It’s a sort of waking dream, it’s this hypnagogic imagery…”

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