Author of Tetris book sues Apple and the Tetris Company for allegedly ripping off his work to make the Tetris movie

A visualisation of Tetris blocks falling.
(Image credit: artpartner-images via Getty)

Author and journalist Dan Ackerman has filed suit against Apple, the Tetris Company, production companies and various individuals involved in the Apple-funded movie Tetris, claiming that the film adapts his book, The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World, without permission. Ackerman is seeking millions in damages from the makers of the film.

Tetris (the film) details how Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris (the game) and the role of Henk Rogers in acquiring the rights for the game on Nintendo's behalf (Tetris was the pack-in title for the Nintendo Game Boy). The struggle over the rights was far from simple thanks to the Soviet authorities, and various other figures who wanted in on the action.

The suit was filed in New York federal court on Monday (thanks, Business Insider), and relies on specific elements of the book which, Ackerman's lawyers claim, have been lifted wholesale for the movie. These alleged similarities in structure and theming are the crux of the matter, because of course the story behind Tetris' development and the battle over rights for it have been told various times by the key players (as well as in other books and documentaries). 

Ackerman's lawyers claim that The Tetris Effect uniquely contextualised the story as a "Cold War thriller with a political intrigue angle" featuring "heroic protagonist" Henk Rogers. Perhaps more persuasively, the suit then details 22 examples of scenes from the film that are very similar to parts of Ackerman's book.

"Mr Ackerman's literary masterpiece, unlike other articles and writings, dispelled of the emphasis on the actual gameplay and fans, and instead concentrated on the surrounding narrative, action sequences, and adversarial relationship between the players," reads the suit.

"This was the identical approach 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."

Then there's the fact that Ackerman sent a copy of the book in 2016, pre-publication, to Henk Rogers' daughter Maya Rogers, who's CEO of The Tetris Company, whom the suit alleges went on to contribute to the development of the script in 2017 (which Ackerman claims is based on his book). Finally, Ackerman says The Tetris Company blocked his efforts to sell TV/film rights to his book by withholding the Tetris license and sending "a strongly worded cease and desist letter" to potential buyers and even his own agent.

Such optioning is common for documentaries and films, which often buy up the rights to factual books or magazine articles: one surprising example that shows you how long such stuff's been going on would be Saturday Night Fever, based on the fictionalised article 'Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night'. This is mainly done not for direct use of the material itself but to stop lawsuits exactly like this, while a further wrinkle is that Ackerman's book is based on the real-life experience of some of the individuals involved in the film, mainly Pajitnov and Rogers.

Ackerman's lawyers are seeking a trial by jury, and the following:

  • Actual and compensatory damages in an amount equal to 3% of the total production budget of the Tetris film
  • Punitive damages equal to 3% of the total production budget of the Tetris film
  • For an award of pre-judgment interest and post-judgment interest in the maximum amount permitted by law
  • For such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper

I've reached out to Apple and The Tetris Company for comment, and will update with any response.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."