5 Legal Battles That Changed Video Game History

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by Tim Rose Jr

When playing video games, you probably spend most of your time admiring the breathtaking landscapes, mastering complex controls, and figuring out which profanity-laden insults you want to scream into your headset. In fact, we’re willing to bet you spend almost no time at all thinking about how lawsuits may have changed the very course of the industry.

The reality, however, is that sometimes they totally do.

 
 

Universal Claimed It Owned Donkey Kong’s Image ... They Didn't

When you think of Donkey Kong, you might rightfully think of King Kong. Maybe your brain heads straight toward the carpenter previously known as Jumpman who climbs construction sites to save his girlfriend from a barrel-throwing ape, but we’re willing to bet it’s the former. Universal Studios thought so, too, which is why when they noticed Donkey Kong becoming enormously successful they sued Nintendo for copyright infringement.

They went after other companies, too; trying to get licensing fees, and threatening litigation when things didn’t go their way. Most were willing to negotiate, including Nintendo. Eventually, when talks started going south, Nintendo said, “Screw it. Let’s court it up.”

In what was Universal’s most embarrassing moment, the courts explained that Universal did not, in fact, own the rights to King Kong. Or you’d think that would have been their most embarrassing moment. As it turns out, the reason the courts were so quick to bring up this point was because Universal themselves had been in court a few years prior -- with other companies trying to sue them over the rights to the giant ape. Universal’s argument in that lawsuit was that King Kong was in the public domain, so nobody held exclusive rights to it -- even them.

 Nintendo

Nintendo

Who hasn't been in this exact situation hundreds of times?

So yes, Universal went into this whole thing knowing they didn’t own the rights to what they were suing over. Oh, and it probably didn’t help that the same judge presided over both cases.

Thanks to Universal not understanding how bluffing works, Nintendo won the lawsuit and was able to continue making Donkey Kong which went on to be one of the most successful arcade games of all time, helping to launch Nintendo into the video game juggernaut we know today.

Nintendo Fears Blockbuster’s Game-Renting, Manual-Copying Wrath

There was a time when you could walk into a store and rent a game for a few dollars, and they would hand you a physical object you could insert into your console, and a game would pop up on your TV. It was a crazy time. So crazy, in fact, that Nintendo wanted nothing to do with it. These rental stores were becoming common fixtures in the American landscape, but one company caught Nintendo’s attention early on due to their success.

That company was Blockbuster, which you probably now know as the opposite of success. Blockbuster would buy a game at wholesale, then rent it out an unlimited number of times without passing along any profits to the developers of the games. Nintendo didn’t like that, so they filed suit. But the courts and legislature didn’t agree, since the entire basis for not allowing rentals is to help prevent them from being copied. And take our word for it -- copying an NES cartridge is hard.

We made this one out of clay.

When Blockbuster won the lawsuit, Nintendo took it down a peg and sued them over the game manuals instead. They claimed that copying instruction manuals infringed on their rights instead of simply becoming replacements for the flimsy booklets kids had destroyed over time. Blockbuster lost that battle, though, and it and other rental outlets just kind of ditched providing manuals altogether.

Companies are still trying to combat the whole renting concept to this day by whatever means necessary. And you can ask Microsoft how successful their “no renting or borrowing” policy went when they launched the Xbox One. You could have thanked Blockbuster for that if, you know, they were still around.

Tetris Was A Mess Of Legal Paperwork

If you’ve ever played Tetris (who hasn’t?) you’ve probably not given a lot of thought to its effects on the gaming industry and more so on, “I need a straight piece, dammit!” But its climb from a fun little programming project to becoming an international sensation was kind of complicated, and some details are still a little foggy.

One thing is certain: Tetris’ creator, Alexey Pajitnov, never intended to sell it or make any money off of it. It was just something fun he wanted to play and share with his friends. As does happen, sharing led to further sharing and the game began finding its way to different parts of the world. Eventually, the owner of Andromeda Software Ltd. saw it and knew he wanted to distribute that sweet, falling, blocky awesomeness to the masses.

 Tetris.Wiki

Tetris.Wiki

The original wasn't exactly what you'd call "flashy".

The problem was that Pajitnov didn’t own the distribution rights to Tetris -- the Soviet Academy of Sciences (where he worked) did. So Andromeda had to negotiate with the Soviet government to get the deal made, which they did, but only for PCs. But then they started making promises and deals with other companies for arcade and console versions, and before the Soviets could even approve those deals, all hell broke loose and the game was everywhere.

Eventually, after lots of confusion and litigation, the Soviets were done dealing with the whole mess and agreed to sell the rights to Nintendo, who packaged it with their new handheld system, the Game Boy, which went on to sell 35 million copies. The really crappy part is that throughout this fiasco, Pajitnov wasn’t seeing a penny from his creation. In fact, it’s estimated that he lost out on a cool $40 million.

The good news is that in 1996, Pajitnov started The Tetris Company, buying the rights for Tetris from the government. It now handles all licensing requests, and finally, Pajitnov could finally make money off his own creation.

Tengen Fights Nintendo Over Licensing Restrictions

After the video game crash of 1985, Nintendo set a limit on all of its developers that allowed them to only release five games per year. And to prevent any breach of this, they created a chip in their system that only allowed officially licensed Nintendo games to play. Tengen thought that to be a giant load of crap, because obviously, the more games they put out the more money they’d make. So they set out to reverse engineer the chip, allowing them to make as many games as they wanted.

Tengen was able to reverse engineer the chip, partly because they lied to the US Copyright Office and stole the documents that explained how the chip worked. With this information in hand, Tengen started releasing their own games, then sued Nintendo for antitrust violations. Of course Nintendo counter-sued, and the fight was on.

Wait, just so we're clear: whom do we actually blame for Gauntlet?

Tengen did end up losing in the end, but what it did was bring attention to Nintendo’s strict and unreasonable exclusivity clause. They decided to allow developers to make games for other companies and removed the five game per year policy. Now, it’s standard practice for developers to make games for any console, or sometimes every console, and only sign exclusivity contracts for specific games. So thank you, Tengen, for giving us Skyrim on every technology including Xbox, PlayStation, and calculators.

Sony Takes On Emulators

Emulators are basically just software that mimics the hardware of another system. You see them everywhere now. The Xbox One, for example, uses one that allows you to play the original Xbox and Xbox 360 games. Nintendo and Sony have similar software for their systems, too. This is a great money-making idea for console-makers, as it allows them to resell old games without consumers having to buy the old consoles. Emulators haven’t always been seen as a positive thing, though.

Most companies in the ’90s didn’t pay any attention to the emulators being made because they weren’t very popular, and therefore they weren’t affecting their wallets. But that all ended when the Bleem Company created an emulator called, well, Bleem!, that emulated the PlayStation on PC. To make matters a little trickier, the Bleem Company was selling this software, meaning more people were now made aware of emulators’ existence and it was cutting into Sony’s sales. Understandably, Sony sued, claiming infringement.

Never trust a company that uses an exclamation point in their name.

Remarkably, the courts disagreed and decided in favor of Bleem. So then Sony sued Bleem again, this time for using screenshots of PlayStation games, but the courts sided with Bleem once again. Unfortunately, and despite their victories, doing legal battle with a giant like Sony is expensive, and Bleem was smothered under the weight of it all.

So we guess the moral to the story is that if you have a cool video game idea, you should also have lots of money and prepare to spend an absurd amount of time in court.

Like this article? Check out "5 Times Gaming Got People In Actual Legal Trouble" and "5 Awesome Ways Games Are Saving The Real World".

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