Tetris: mere ruleset or copyrighted expression?

What makes Tetris Tetris? The mobile app explosion threw gasoline on the game's already-numbing history of copyright battles. At Ars Technica, Kyle Orland takes a look at the Tetris Company's endless efforts to kill them. These efforts hinge on a seemingly straightforward question: is Tetris simple enough to be defined by a set of rules (to which copyright cannot apply) or does it qualify as protected expression?


  1. “Tetris” was Alexei Pajitnov’s “Thriller.”  While he has earned justifiable praise for subsequent efforts, nothing else has come close.

    But that’s background.  As far as the actual question, no.  It’s a ruleset, plain and simple.  Allowing “Tetris” to be copyrighted makes as much sense as copyrighting the concept of the jigsaw puzzle.

    Wait, don’t do that.  Please.

    1. I thought the judge did OK, even though people seem outraged by this. There’s a certain rorschach-like quality to the ruling.

      For example, the court cited the 20×10 playfield as one component (insufficient in itself) of protected expression.

      Is this a sign that something ridiculous is being protected? After all, it’s just a grid size–a profoundly elemental characteristic of countless games that seems almost laughably unexpressive.

      But it’s also a detail of “original” Tetris, which, taken alongside various other specifics, suggests intentional cloning. And by defining it, the judge makes it easier for derivatives to avoid the protected elements–simply make the grid a different size, and you’ve got a tick in your column in his courtroom.

      1. Yes, that was my thought, too. As complex an issue that it is, I think the judge’s ruling was ok. The idea to separate the high level rules (ok to copy) and what would be more of a “flavor of a specific game” rules and look and feel was a really good one.

        Just copy the basic rules, that’s ok. Copy some of the look and feel but add your own elements… also ok. Make the look and feel more or less exactly like in the original Tetris, to the point that you cannot really guess which one is which when playing them side by side… not ok.

      2. I think I understand–you’re saying that the 20×10 playgrid, and its duplication by this particular clone, would be grounds.

        Based on pre-existing U.S. law and litigation as I understand it, the ruleset should never be protectable, period, except possibly by a 20-year utility patent, which would have expired around 7 years ago (depending on when Pajitnov would have been allowed to patent it internationally and in the U.S., versus in the then-Soviet Union, whose patent laws I don’t know even a little).  (I am aware that “Monopoly” was originally developed in the public domain, which is why its ruleset is not protected.  But Tetris is closer to a jigsaw puzzle anyway.   And patents on jigsaw puzzles ran out a long, long time ago.)

        The only expression should be copyrightable is the source code to each Tetris Company-published application, based on existing copyright law, which should be shredded anyway.

      3. Not just the ruleset but the specific coloring of each piece.  Looks infringing to me.

        That said, yeah, the judge made a pretty good series of points about how this ruling is limited and any one of those copied elements wouldn’t be infringing in and of itself — he specifically cited Dr. Mario as a falling-block puzzle game where pieces disappear and the next piece is previewed but which is clearly noninfringing.

  2. If anything, Tetris can be protected as a set of  pieces in the context of their interaction with one another. Yes, the rules are part of Tetris, but the pieces are what makes Tetris recognizable as Tetris. If you keep the rules and change out the shape of the pieces, It wouldn’t be Tetris. it would be Tetris-like.

    It’s like how Bejeweled isn’t Connect 4. The two games share the same mechanic (line up like colors), but the games are completely different. A Tetris-like game can have the same mechanic (make complete lines), and resemble nothing of what we visually associate with Tetris.

    The people making mobile ports [copies] of Tetris are just looking for a quick buck. They’re not about creating anything. At least give me something that makes it unique to the market. Besides, stop dragging my childhood through the courts. K thnx.

    1. The pieces of tetris are just the set of tetrominoes. The wolfram page has a 1966 reference to the recreational/puzzle use of tetrominoes, and there may well be relevant earlier ones. While the complete set of rules and look-and-feel *might* be copyrightable, there’s no way anyone can lay claim to a well-known mathematical set or all uses of it in a game.

      So the “owners” of tetris are being bigger douches than you think.

      And it’s not the people making tetris clones that are dragging your childhood through the courts. My childhood goes back to the 80’s home computers, and the wild proliferation of home-brew games it spawned. If litigious dickheads had been swarming as thickly back then as they are now, they could have set us back technologically by a decade or more.

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