the history of copyright in Russian gamedev

the history of copyright in Russian gamedev

The history of the Russian game business is an exciting roller coaster. If in the early 1990s the country was dominated by stolen content, after a few years games from Russian developers were officially sold all over the world and were not inferior in quality to the best works of Western or Japanese studios, and yesterday’s pirates became millionaires. We recall the main stages of development of our gamedev.

1990s: from the first masterpieces to the pirate harbor

The history of game development in Russia began with scandal, related to the theft of domestic development in 1985, the Soviet programmer Oleksiy Pazhitnov developed the legendary Tetris, which soon became popular among programmers of the socialist bloc countries. It was copyrighted by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

In Budapest, the British Robert Stein, the head of a company that sold Hungarian software to the West, saw the game. The entrepreneur copied the game from Hungarian scientists, and then announced that he had bought the rights to it with the confidence that the Soviet developers would not sue.

Stein sold the rights to Tetris to several companies, but eventually had to buy a license from the Soviet developers. The Soviet export firm managed to get around it: Stein got the rights to distribute the game not on all platforms, but only on computers. This version was not requested.

The most valuable license for handheld video games was sold to the Japanese giant Nintendo. To a large extent, thanks to Tetris, the company was able to promote the Game Boy.

But soon another era began. After the collapse of the USSR, the video game market was taken over by pirates who copied and distributed foreign products with impunity. In the 1990s, all software was unlicensed, from video games to office programs in state structures.

In the early 1990s, there were some interesting game developers in Russia, such as Gamos or Nikita. But it was very difficult for them to develop normally in this wild market.

For children of the 1990s, the main digital entertainment was the Dendy set-top box. It was an unlicensed clone of the Nintendo Famicom – the original was not sold in Russia.

Pirating set-top box architectures has been common over the years, especially in developing countries. Taiwan became the main producer of such devices. The first batches of Dendy were also produced there, but then production was transferred to mainland China. Games for Dendy were also pirated — like most games for any other platform.

Why have pirates managed to completely take over the gaming industry?

Firstly, the manufacturers of any software at that time simply did not have the technological capabilities to prevent the theft of their creations. Even if a user could not copy a console game on the knee, it was easily done in industrial production.

In the mid-1990s, the first consoles that used CDs appeared – Sony PlayStation and Sega CD. Copy protection was put on games, but after a while everyone learned to bypass it, using new writable disk drives and programs for cutting disks. Another way that completely broke the software protection is to restore the system from the image of the licensed software.

The second reason for the dominance of pirates is banal – licensed games were too expensive, and most Russians could not afford them. A disk could cost $50, and the average salary of a Muscovite at certain times could be only $5-10. And pirated games were ten times cheaper.

Initially, manufacturers tried to attract citizens for the use of pirated consoles and games, but this practice was quickly abandoned. Already by the mid-90s, the huge pirate market became actually legal. Pirated games were often wrapped in quality packaging, so that the buyer could not know that he was acquiring the game illegally.

Foreign companies did not sue Russian manufacturers who openly released pirated games. Moreover, they themselves were interested in it – and this is the third reason for the spread of piracy.

Producers looked down on the sale of only Russian-language localizations. Only English-language discs were of interest to the police during raids on electronics markets. And that suited everyone. The companies were waiting for the Russian consumer to get used to their products and become more solvent.

This attitude was even at Microsoft – until the mid-2000s, the company calmly accepted the fact that pirated versions of programs were used everywhere, including government organizations.

The turn of the 1990s and 2000s: the transition from savagery to civilization

In the early 2000s, the Russian consumer began to switch to licensed games and software little by little. This was facilitated by a powerful economic jump and the efforts of Russian enterprises, which brought the market out of the shadows.

The Buka company played a huge role in this. Founded in 1994, it became the first major Russian distributor of exclusively licensed consoles and games, but after the 1998 default, it focused only on games.

Its leadership invented a fundamentally new distribution model that made official games much more accessible.

The fact is that in the 1990s games were sold with a lot of accompanying materials – posters, merch, promotional booklets, brochures, etc. – such sets were expensive, and after 1998 they became completely unavailable.

“Buka” was the first to sell games in a radically low-budget “jewel case” format – disc and box. This made it possible to reduce the price of licensed versions from $25-50 to $7 – pirated copies cost the same. At the same time, the price was set for a separate disc, and the games could then be released on two or three media – the inexperienced Russian consumer, who was used to paying by the quantity, better accepted this pricing model.

The first game published “in the jewel” was the graphic quest “Petka and Vasyl Ivanovich” from the Russian studio SKIF. It was released at the height of the economic crisis. Then there was the most popular Heroes of Sword and Sorcery 3, one of the main games of the generation.

Another key company of that era, Akella, started in 1993 as a pirate localizer of foreign games. But its products were very high-quality – the company invested a lot of money in advertising and promotion.

“Akella” became the harbinger of positive changes. It was illegal software, but people still got used to buying quality versions. In the late 1990s, the company came out of the shadows — engaged in official localization and in-house game development and soon became one of the market leaders.

The 2000s are a golden age

The dominance of pirates in the game market ended around 2000. An era has begun, which is called the golden age of Russian game development. In zero, Russian studios released many high-quality original games that were successful in the West. The market doubled annually, and in 2003 it surpassed the film rental market in terms of volume.

The first big success was “Corsairs: Curse of the High Seas”, released in 2000, from Akela – the game sold well even in America. When the second part of the game came out two years later, it was bought by Disney Interactive and promoted along with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Then there were other recognized hits – “Space Rangers”, “Blitzkrieg”, “Turgor”, “Behind enemy lines”, King’s Bounty, “Plague (Utopia)”.

The era of rapid development of Russian game development ended in 2008. There were alarm bells before – for example, “Corsairs 3”, which was released in 2005, unexpectedly for everyone was full of bugs, and for many users it simply did not start.

From 2008 to today: the Internet dictates new rules

The main reason for the crisis in the gaming industry was the global financial crisis. And not only in Russia, but all over the world. However, there were others – outdated business models, which in many respects came from the pirate past, could not be adapted to the new age of the Internet and mobile devices.

In the 2010s, quality releases decreased, and the market began to be dominated by products from Western studios. Domestic game development did not die – the first violin in it began to be played by companies that learned in time which way the wind was blowing and engaged in online and mobile games. Among the main Russian gaming achievements of the 2010s are World of Tanks, Allodys Online, War Thunder, a shooter based on the novel Metro 2033 and the world-famous smartphone puzzle Cut The Rope.


The dominance of the Internet has radically changed the situation with intellectual property. On the one hand, the Internet makes life easier for pirates, on the other hand, it gives developers universal and very effective tools for protection against piracy. Today, it has become much easier for game developers to protect their intellectual property — primarily thanks to fundamental changes in the way games are distributed:

  • closed App Store and Google Play platforms almost completely block unlicensed software and protect programs from hacking;

  • network game distribution technologies, when you need to connect to a server to run even single-player mode, make it impossible to copy the code.

How games are protected today

Games today are protected by automatic copyright. This mechanism works against pirates who steal and distribute games, but does not affect the individual user. In addition, studios patent original game engines and protect part of his work as industrial samples. Another way is registration game characters as trademarks. However, it is rather a protection against illegal commercial use of their images.

Conflicts due to piracy between studios and companies are almost non-existent these days. Serious firms respect each other – and if a small player tries to steal something, he is quickly destroyed by legal proceedings.

At the same time, piracy has not completely disappeared. On Chinese sites, you can buy hard drives with thousands of modern PC games and set-top boxes – however, they are not able to offer the full functionality of the original products, such as multi-user mode and timely updates. In addition, the process of buying original software is much easier today than finding, downloading and installing a pirated version.

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