Atari Advert - December 1982
From Personal Computer World
Atari Star Raiders: New game, private property
This "advert", which appeared in the pre-Christmas edition of Personal Computer World, is a legal nasty-gram from Atari showing that some things in the software industry have never changed. Although Atari had been fairly immune from pirating of its titles during the VCS/2600 era, when games were all cartridge-based, it was suffering a bit by 1983 thanks to things like the Mycard ROM copier manufactured in Taiwan. However the advent of its 400 and 800 machines - which used cassette tape as a program/storage medium - coupled with the fact that its software was often considered overpriced meant that now it was having its games regularly copied. And like Bill Gates, it was not happy about it. Gates had written his famous open letter in 1976 to the Homebrew Computer Club complaining about how Micro-Soft's Altair BASIC was being freely copied. On one occasion, the "MITS Mobile", a converted camper van used to tour the U.S. and demonstrate MITS' products like the famous Altair 8800, visited the Homebrew Computer Club. The paper tape that was used to store a pre-release version of Altair BASIC disappeared for a while, and at the following week's meeting 50 copies of it appeared in a cardboard box.
Atari was also vigorous in asserting its interests against fellow computer companies, stating that it will "continue to enforce its rights against those who would seek to misappropriate the fruits of Atari's labours", by which it didn't just mean base piracy but also the copying of "look and feel" or gameplay. In particular, it took action against Commodore over its VIC 20 cartridge titles Space Invaders, Pac Man and Midnight Drive, amongst others. It turned out that only the name of Space Invaders was copyrighted, so Commodore changed its version to "VIC Avengers" and kept the game the same. Pac Man, which was not even a game that Atari wrote but had bought from a Japanese company, ended up being sold in the UK as Jelly Monsters (Atari was also taking action against Philips over the same game) and the other titles had to be changed too.
Atari had dropped an interim injunction attempt against Commodore - to prevent it selling Jelly Monsters - in November 1982, after it had failed to secure injunctions against Hong Kong companies Video Technology and Soundic Electronics the month before. The judge, whilst recognising that "the copyright of a computer program is not a clearly-defined area" threw out the suit because Atari had based its case on a "novel point of law". Nevertheless, Atari was pressing ahead with its main action for damages against Commodore. The action to abandon the injunction was thought to be defensive - partly because of its failure in October but also because any failure to get an injunction against a Pac-Man clone would open the floodgates to all the other myriad Pac-Man clones waiting for a chance to re-start their sales. Withdrawing its case averted the possibility that the injunction might be refused. Meanwhile, Commodore seemed to have been taken slightly by surprise, with John Baxter commenting "Up until Tuesday we thought [Atari] was going ahead with the proceedings. We were ready to fight it", whilst an Atari spokesperson stated that "Atari has not climbed down".
One of the main drivers of the pirate or clone market was undoubtedly price, with continuous complaints that software prices were too high. Atari really wasn't helping itself in this area when its new Atarisoft division, set up to develop software for non-Atari machines, started shipping its own version of some of these games - including Pac-Man - on ROM catridge towards the end of 1983. Its prices were seriously un-competitive, with cartridges going for £29.95 (around £100 in 2019) and tapes for £14.99. Commodore's own cartridges were meanwhile retailing for around £10, and Spectrum cassette games were available for around £6. Atari UK's marketing manager Eric Salamon attempted to justify the price gouging by suggesting that "These are the best-selling games worldwide and at the end of the day you are paying for artistic input". Quite where the extra artistic input went on Pac Man to justify its £20 mark-up was not specified.
Piracy was a sensitive subject in the UK too, with some early legal moves to combat it occuring in late summer 1983. Both the UK and EEC (EU) parliaments were looking to change copyright law to cover computer software, but things were going slowly. In September of 1983 the British Computer Society tried to set in motion a Private Members Bill to amend Copyright law, which at the time was a patchwork of amendments to the original Copyright Act of 1956. Bob Hart of the BCS said "we would like to amend the current Act to ensure that copyright would extend to software programs, making them alternative expressions of a literary work". The stimulus behind this was a meeting of WIPO and UNESCO in June 1982, which concluded that "the problem should be couched in existing copyright law", although this was thought by some technocrats in the EU to be strange as it didn't address the problem, as posited by Personal Computer News, of translating software from, say, Fortran to Cobol - the equivalent of producing a pirate Spanish edition of an English book.
It was not until 1985 that actual legislation started to appear. Before that, there had been sporadic legal action based upon existing law, including the £400 fining of a London council worker (who had taken several months to track down) under the Trade Description Act for selling fake copies of games at half the normal retail price, and a bigger case at the High Court involving Thorn EMI and MirrorSoft as plaintiffs. The four defendents in this case got off lightly, with a promise not to do it again. There were also some successes, with two men from Salford being charged in the spring of 1984 with possession of 13,000 professionally-copied tapes, complete with full-colour cassette inserts, including fake titles from major software houses Psion, Quicksilva, Ocean, Ultimate, Imagine and Durrell. The two men were charged with criminal deception as well as offences under the 1956 Copyright act and were bailed, pending appearances in court, for £10,000.
Nick Alexander of Virgin, © Popular Computing Weekly 29th September 1983By 1984, the Guild of Software Houses (GOSH) which had been set up in 1983 as a pro-software-copyright collective between several major games companies including Quicksilva, Softek, Salamander and Virgin, had set up a special anti-piracy committee. Meanwhile, some software houses - a group which had been criticised recently for lethargy in tackling pirates - had also started to get more pro-active, with Software Projects and Microdeal in particular "taking the gloves off". Software Projects' Alan Maton promised "if we know of someone who is breaking the law we'll take every step to make sure our investment is protected. We're fighting fire with fire". Maton took particular issue with the pirating of popular Sinclair Spectrum game "Jet Set Willy", with several work-arounds for the game's print-based colour-coded protection chart (providing the codes needed to start the game) appearing in the press, even though there was actually more protection for this sort of piracy as at the time the law was much clearer on the copyright of printed material. By the end of May, GOSH had ramped up its war as it set up a legal fund to be used to fight software piracy. Over £50,000 had been pledged from 21 members companies at a meeting in the week of the 24th May, with GOSH chairman Nick Alexander saying "All we have to do now is find a suitable case to fight - and believe me there are plenty of deserving causes".
In July 1984, Microdeal was in the news again for all the wrong reasons. In the middle of the month it had taken two brothers from Blackburn to court to halt a commercial piracy operation, but only a week later found itself being sued by US company Activision over Microdeal's Cuthbert in the Jungle, which Activision was claiming was a copy of its game Pitfall. Geoff Heath, the UK managing director of Activision explained "We applied to the court for an injunction to prevent Microdeal selling Cuthbert. However, after reviewing the writ and our prosecution papers, Microdeal obviously felt our case was watertight because they didn't fight it". It was becoming something of a pattern for Microdeal, as the company had been hassled the previous year by Nintendo over Microdeal's suspiciously-named game "Donkey King", which was apparently in no way a knock-off of Nintendo's Donkey Kong. That action was prevented when Microdeal announced it was changing the name to "The King". As David Kelly of Popular Computing Weekly pointed out, "It just isn't good enough for software houses to start kicking up a stink about piracy - forming themselves into groups GOSH and FAST, with the aim of fighting piracy - when their own house is in such disorder".
The challenge from piracy ramped up towards the end of 1984 when it was discovered that Portuguese company Microbaite Software was copying Spectrum software. However, this wasn't just the odd tape, but was systematic copying of games from a variety of software houses which included full-colour printed cassette inserts and everything. There were around 54 different tapes available, each of which contained two different top-selling titles. Not one of the 100 or more titles on offer had actually been authorised, and Quicksilva, which had at least eight of its titles on the pirate's tapes, didn't seem impressed, with the company's managing director Rod Cousens commenting "Portugal seems to be one of the main offenders for this type of organised piracy. It's not the kids copying stuff that worries us so much as this kind of professional outfit". As well as Melbourne House and Beau Jolly, Psion had also been targetted by Microbaite. The company's product director Peter Norman reckoned that Psion "[would] pursue this extremely vigorously. We always go to great lengths to stamp out professional piracy". The actual chances of any of the affected companies being able to realistically do anything about it, given lack of international cooperation - even though Portugal was a signatory of the Berne Convention on copyright - were however remote.
By around April 1985, the Copyright (Computer Software) Amendment Bill had received an un-opposed third reading in the House of Commons. It was expected to become law by the middle of summer. The "William Powell Computer Copyright Bill" as it was also known, could also be used against several companies at the time who were producing devices that could dump the contents of memory on to tape or disk, ostensibly for the purposes of "backing up". One such company was Evesham Micros, which was selling the "Interface III", a small plug-in module which could dump a copy of any running program to tape at the touch of a button. The worry was that "a new wave of piracy could be the last straw for the ailing software industry". Such devices had been around in various forms for a few years, such as 1983's Dark Star "Snapshot", a plug-in card for the Apple II which was capable of dumping a running program to disk. Called "not just another bit copier", it could "remove copy protection and copies most programs that no bit copier can touch - including the bit copiers themselves". The device, which retailed for £110, or about £360 in 2019, was also billed as a primitive multi-tasker, as it was possible to use it to effectively halt a running program, let the user run something else and then return to where they left off. A couple of months later it was Commodore's turn to consider taking legal action against another bit-copier - the General Hardware Company - which was offering a device that could copy VIC-20 ROM cartridge software. A Commodore spokesman said "We are very concerned and the matter has now been referred to our solicitors who are considering the next move".
Amstrad suffered its fair share of embarrassment as it was taken to court in 1985 by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) for its double-decker tape deck with high-speed copying. Mr. Justice Whitford of the High Court stated that this was "an inducement to infringe copyright", with Amstrad's unique problem being that they were both manufactures of the double tape deck (which featured in their range of budget Hi-Fi) as well as a commercial software house trading as Amsoft. The case cost Amstrad £100,000 (£306,200), plus further damages to be determined, although the company vowed to appeal against the ruling. In his defence, Alan Sugar actually produced a bird watcher who used the Amstrad double tape deck to make copies of bird song for friends, as an example of "the typical tape-to-tape cassette user". The judge was "not impressed". It was all perhaps a little unfair as there were other tape duplicators around, albeit clearly aimed at business. For instance, Sound Electronics' CD 201 high-speed cassette duplicator was launched in May 1984 and could be had for a snip at £1,290 or about £4,140 in 2019.
Back in 1982, a software publisher - Julian Allason - had also complained about tape duplicating, saying that "it has destroyed the computer games software business". His company was Petsoft, the Edgebaston-based subsidiary of ACT, but Guy Kewney of Personal Computer World pointed out that all of his programs were out of date anyway and that other software authors, in particular those of "totally copyable Spectrum games", were earning £35,000 a year (about £117,700 in 2019) at the age of 17 and getting invited to dinner with Margaret Thatcher.
By 1983, the industry worried not just by increasing home taping but by the increase in "software libraries" and exchange clubs. Commodore's marketing manager John Baxter said of the issue that "Stopping individual libraries is very difficult. Industries much larger than our own - the record and video business for example - are trying hard to fight a similar sort of problem and are failing, so there is no easy solution". Commodore was in an unusual position in that it was one of the few micro companies that only supported its own dedicate tape records, or "datasettes". This gave it the option of "changing the design of [its] cassette player to make it incompatible with a normal audio player". It also, along with other companies, had the option of moving software to ROM or floppy-disc only, however these were more expensive and could alienate possibly millions of owners. And it wasn't just unofficial software libraries - Thanet public library was already offering a small scale software loan facility by the spring of 1983].
Just a week later, at the Spider's Web Motel in Watford, 28 members of the Computer Trade Association - micro builders, retailers and software companies - met to discuss the problem of software libraries, with Nick Alexander of Virgin games suggesting that even if home taping could be curtailed, software libraries would still be a "bad thing". Computer magazine Popular Computing Weekly seemed to agree and had taken something of a stand by refusing to accept adverts from software libraries that "hired out tapes without the publisher's permission". Alexander continued "Because rental took off in the video market, dealers got involved in such cut-throat competition that they didn't have enough revenue to plough back to buy new releases - the same thing could happen with games". Meanwhile Salamander's Nick Lambert was frustrated that the only apparent control the software companies had over their own software - that of first-party sale, i.e. how, when and to whom software could be re-sold, could not legally be written in to the terms of sale. The CTA wrapped up their meeting with the somewhat obvious statement that "The CTA is opposed to any form of hiring or lending of tapes, discs or cassetts by direct or indirect means without the authority of the author of the program". The CTA had been set up only a few weeks before, and had formed out of the Society of Computer Manufacturers, Agents and Dealers, the micro-industry group set up only a couple of months before in February 1983 and which counted Atari, Bug-Byte, Camputers and Tandy amongst its membership. It immediately set up its committee to investigate "questions of copyright and software lending", with a watchdog to monitor lending libraries and the option of trying to scare up a test case at law.
There was also concern within the ranks, or at least with some of the less-tied retailers. In April 1983, software house Quicksilva and the retailer Software Centre resolved a dispute over the latter's buy-back scheme, in which customers had six months to try out software and return it, in return for an 80% discount on future purchases. Under the terms of the agreement, Software Centre was forced to reduce its Buy'n Try buy-back deadline to only one month, but this wouldn't really have much of an impact. Other software producers were looking closely at the case, with Sinclair suggesting that "The practical way of stopping [Software Centre's] actions is to stop them getting any product - and that is what we are now turning our attention to".
The sometime-excesses and overt successes of the microcomputer and software industry - epitomised by the crash of software house Imagine in 1984 - were starting to attract the attention of the Inland Revenue, which by the summer of 1983 had set up a special investigatory team. It was particularly concerned that a "large number of new companies that [had] sprung up in the last couple of years [were] failing to fulfil their tax obligations", by which it generally meant that falling hardware and software prices would bankrupt these companies and the Revenue would not get any taxes. Somewhat sinisterly, the IR was collecting evidence from adverts as well as from interviews with key participants in the industry, or as Tony Slater of the Revenue's Bristol Special Office said "I am interested in finding out as much as I can about the home computer business - hardware and software - from the top to the bottom". Computer software was especially tricky and prone to loopholes as it was covered by at-the-time fuzzy laws governing "intellectual property". One loophole meant that even best-selling software was considered "worthless a the point of its creation", which left room for creative accountants to maximise profits with the minimum of tax liabilities.Meanwhile, Kewney disagreed that piracy was quite the problem that software houses claimed it was, citing arguments that are still as valid today as they were then. In a lengthy piece entitled "Integrity", published in July 1983's issue of Personal Computer World, he referred to a case where a software producer had recently accused some children of "stealing" software because five of them had clubbed together to buy a program, presumably to share it as they otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford it. Kewney also came up with a good analogy: "if everybody could get books from libraries without paying, what would happen to the book shops? And without bookshops, what would happen to books?".
Throughout 1983, the arms race between software houses, pirates and mainstream companies offering ways around protection was hotting up. On releasing its "Copy II" program, Tony Riley, MD of Orchard Software said "When I read yet another article about rampant piracy, I just have to yawn - our customers are mainly big business types who will happily pay for their software and who just won't risk using pirated copies - but they do need backup". Version 4 of the program came with all the latest methods of circumventing copy-protection, including those based upon "self-synch bytes" and "synchronised tracks". Riley continued "we expect to be offering a bit-copier for the IBM PC soon, now that it is being marketed here in the UK. That will probably cause yet another round of indignation from people who refuse to face facts. Serious users need reliable backup".
By the autumn of 1983, software publishers were getting more technical with counter-measures designed to prevent copying. Recent Acornsoft programs had been modified to prevent copying to disk, and software from Imagine went as far as to use the system clock to stop copying. Even Sinclair's new Microdrives also featured copy protection designed to stop easy saving from tape to "disk". Guy Kewney was still raging about it, pointing out how users always found a way around such things and citing the "nibble copy" programs popular in the US. "For every time that the software company wastes its time working out a new protection method, we can count one more game that the programmer could have written in the same time, which would have actually generated money". Proposing that there should clearly be a law to prevent copying for sale, he concluded that this might make the industry less paranoid and "less prone to mindless vandalism of the sort which prevents me from running my programs on my diskettes".
The arms-race continued throughout 1984. By the autumn, it was being reported that a group had been set up in the Netherlands specifically to help pirates organise. The 'International Cracking Agency' was circulating a cracking disc to recognised software pirates which contained details of how to circumvent the protection of much commercial software of the day. CRL's Clement Chambers said "it's getting so bad that you can't release a new title slowly through Europe - two weeks after the program is launched in the UK, pirated copies are available in a number of other countries and you haven't got any market left." before adding somewhat menacingly "If we could find out who is behind this International Cracking Agency they'd be in the Thames with a set of concrete wellies".
By the summer of 1986, GOSH had been disolved on account of its dwindling membership. Its last chairman, Mike Meek of Mikro-Gen bailed out stating that "there was little point in continuing". However, legal action from its members continued as the case that Microdeal had taken out in Blackburn back in 1984 finally bore fruit, with a judgment against Dr T. Mohamad, who had been selling a compilation of Microdeal's games for £30, coming in at the very end of 1986 after a "long and lengthy trek through the courts", with a win for the plaintiff of £9,262.98, or about £25,900 in 2019. There was also a win for Pride Utilities, an Amstrad software supplier, in April 1987 against its former French distributor ESAT. ESAT had previously been a significant customer of Pride, but the latter company noticed that orders had been slowly dropping off towards the end of 1986. After Pride sent in agents to investigate, it turned out that ESAT had been duplicating Pride's software "on a large scale". As well as a settlement against ESAT for an outstanding bill of £9,000, the company also kicked off legal proceedings in the courts of Bordeaux over ESAT's rampant piracy, just before Christmas '96, action which was still ongoing by the spring of 1987.
The mantle of fighting piracy was taken up by a new trade association, the British Micro Federation, which had been set up in October 1986 but which held its first AGM on March 25th 1987. With a wider remit, which as well as anti-piracy included establishing codes of practice for their own protection as well as that of the consumer as well as a role as a lobby group to Government, the committee of the BMF comprised, amongst others, of Paul Welch of Atari UK, Geoff Heath of Mastertronic, Clive Booth of Computerland, the editor of Popular Computing Weekly - Christina Erskine - and Microsoft's David Fraser as chairman and the representative for "business software". Fraser would become vociferous in the ongoing war over the BBC's patronage of Acorn.
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