Arrrrrrrr! Ahoy maties! Weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen! James Matson discovers ye don’t need to cleave a scurvy dog to the brisket in order to be a Pirate. You just have to copy from disk A, to disk B. Ya scallywag! (okay, that’s enough – Ed).
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, light is streaming through the loungeroom window. Birds are chirping away outside while from the kitchen comes the chaotic noises of a breakfast under studious construction.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (which has been blaring through the antiquated Sanyo TV up until now) suddenly goes quiet as the TV is flicked to channel 0, and the familiar text “**** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****” blinks onto the screen, swathed in blue.
A plastic disk box (the kind with the relatively useless lockable front) is opened revealing a stack of 5 1/4″ floppy disks of all colours, each with a handwritten title on a sticker, many with different penmanship. There must be $1000 or more of software in this box, but none of it was purchased. The floppy disks maybe, but not the software on them.
I’m 9 years old.
I’m a software Pirate.
How’s that for effect, right? Powerful stuff. The fact is – and it only really dawned on me the other day – I was a child software pirate. As a kid I was drowned in copied games for the Commodore 64. Just about every disk I owned was some kind of superbly cracked, mega packed multi-game disk. Side A had 2 or 3 games on it, as did side B, and I had virtually no concept of the legality or morality of what I was handling. My only real exposure to what you’d consider commercial software, was the cover-tapes that used to adorn magazines like Zzap64. Those at least, were licensed and paid for.
When my family finally upgraded to an Amiga, the piracy habit was well and truly formed, and even though as a 12 year old kid I’d begun to understand the commercial gravity of copying software (thanks to a multitude of articles in mags like CU Amiga on the subject) it didn’t change the fact I was still swamped in illegal copies of games. I think from memory, I owned one original Amiga game.
Falcon F16 Fighter. It was a gift.
Everything else was on blank disks bought in packs of 10 from your local computer store. My Mum had a guy you see. A dealer I suppose you could say. He was an officer at an army base in rural Victoria, and we’d often go to visit his barracks at the back of which was a reasonably impressive Amiga setup. One long sturdy bench with multiple machines, and oodles and oodles of software. More games, utilities and applications than you could poke a 16-bit stick at. I’d park myself at an Amiga, play some Ninja Mission and wait patiently as Mum and Sergeant Jack Sparrow hammered out the details of whatever software copying negotiation was going down.
No matter the particulars, I always came out with a box of new games.
And if that wasn’t enough, we also had mail order contacts. Mysterious interstate groups that sent you catalogues of software lovingly listed on dot matrix paper. Just tick what you want and send away. Convenient. Easy. Piracy was rife in my life, and in some ways I owe my love of gaming to it. There’s no way I could ever have been exposed to that many genres and titles had piracy not been a factor. It’s terrible to say, I know, but it’s true. We were a country family, very few options for retail purchase in a world before Steam and widespread, fast internet. Thanks to the vast bounty of illegal games, I got to play the greats, develop the love, and it’s continued well into my adult – reformed – years. Piracy was the enabler of the hobby for many, and in some ways an Angel of Life & Death all at once. Piracy killed – or at least helped cripple – the Commodore Amiga, but it also gave birth to the cracking scene which would – over time – evolve into the mighty demo scene that’s produced some of the worlds most brilliant coders.
All my youthful gaming memories, of Rainbow Islands, Sierra adventures and Team 17 classics are tainted with the spectre of software piracy.
It’d be all too easy to assume that Piracy has gotten worse in modern times. The internet has provided a lightning fast distribution network for illegal software, a network no longer bound by the physical handing on of floppy disks, or the filling out of snail mail catalogues. But as someone whose life has spanned both the “old world” and “new world” Piracy phenomenon, I’d argue that Piracy is not nearly as attractive now as it once was. At least, not to me.
In the old days, the choice was binary. You either bought a full price retail game in a big box, from a bricks & mortar store, or you got a physical illegal copy. These days, there are so many choices and only one of them is to be a pirate. Subscription games, free to play games, kickstarters, digital downloads, retail boxes, browser based games. A beautiful orchestra of entertainment options.
Oh, and Steam sales. let’s not forget Steam sales.
Piracy is still rife, make no mistakes, and games are cracked, packed and served up with reckless abandon on torrent sites. But it doesn’t feel like one of the big choices any more. It doesn’t feel like a necessary evil. Just an ordinary one.