Tech journalist Dan Ackerman claims Apple’s movie Tetris ripped off his 2016 book, The Tetris Effect, and is suing Apple, the movie’s producers and screenwriter, and the Tetris Company itself for millions of dollars in damages.
Attorneys for Ackerman — who is editor-in-chief of the tech website Gizmodo — filed a suit in New York federal court on Monday, claiming The Tetris Company, its CEO Maya Rogers, and the screenwriter Noah Pink adapted his book without his consent. The suit also names Apple as the distributor of the movie, and several production companies involved in the making of the film, as defendants.
Tetris tells the story of how Alexey Pajitnov’s classic puzzle game, created in Soviet Russia, came to be popularized in the West. It focuses on Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton in the movie), the Dutch-American entrepreneur who was instrumental in securing the rights for the game for Nintendo’s Game Boy version in a 1989 wrangle with Soviet authorities that also involved shady British media mogul Robert Maxwell, among others.
This is the story told in Ackerman’s book, too — though he was hardly the first to tell it. Among many other examples, the events formed a memorable climax for David Sheff’s classic 1993 book about Nintendo’s rise in the 1980s, Game Over; were compellingly told in a 2004 BBC TV documentary, Tetris: From Russia With Love; and figured in Box Brown’s 2016 graphic novel, Tetris: The Games People Play.
Ackerman’s suit rests on three main claims. The first is that it was his invention to frame the story as a “Cold War thriller with a political intrigue angle,” in the lawsuit’s words, with Henk Rogers as the “heroic protagonist.” The second is that the way the film tells the story is, scene by scene, materially and specifically similar to the way his book (which the suit describes as a “literary masterpiece”) tells it; the suit lists 22 incidences of this, complete with timecodes.
The third is that Ackerman sent a pre-publication copy of his book to Maya Rogers (Henk’s daughter) in 2016, in her capacity as CEO of The Tetris Company, which controls the rights to the game. (He had previously interviewed her, along with her father and Pajitnov, for the book.) Ackerman alleges that Maya Rogers began development of the movie’s script with Pink no earlier than 2017, basing it without permission on his work. He also says that The Tetris Company blocked his own attempts to sell film and TV rights to his book by refusing to allow the use of the Tetris license, and by scaring his agent and potential clients off with a “strongly worded cease and desist letter.”
For all this, Ackerman is asking for compensation of at least 6% of the film’s estimated $80 million production budget — in the region of $5 million.
It’s standard practice in Hollywood, when working with a real-life story, to buy the option for a book or magazine article about it — even if the producers don’t intend to adapt this source material all that closely. In part, this practice exists specifically to protect the producers against legal claims such as Ackerman’s, by giving them a form of ownership over one version of the historical record.
Perhaps Apple and The Tetris Company felt they didn’t need to take this step, since they had the creators of the game and the principal characters of the story — Henk Rogers and Pajitnov, who were also the principal sources for Ackerman’s book — on board as producers. Ackerman’s version of events is one of many they could have optioned, they may argue, but the original story is theirs to tell. In that context, the court will need to decide if the movie is indeed so close to Ackerman’s book as to constitute an unauthorized adaptation of it.
Polygon has contacted Ackerman, The Tetris Company, and Apple for comment.