It is true to say that software piracy and video games go hand in hand, but not just in the home computer and console market. Since the early 70s, literally the infancy of video arcade gaming, manufacturers have struggled with the endless number of counterfeit and “clone” video game cabinets and PCBs out there.
Arguably, the phenomenon really started with Atari’s successes – their competitors produced close approximations of Pong as they looked to jump on the bandwagon of the new video entertainment craze. Allied Leisure for example, who up to that time, had only produced electromechanical and solid state pinball machines, saw the incredible success of Pong and decided to release their own version.
Paddle Battle was a direct clone of the original game. So brazen were the production numbers that according to industry lore, it actually outsold Atari’s Pong itself:
There are tens of examples of Pong clones out there all released around the same time.
But these were the early pioneering days of electronic entertainment. Copyright laws had scant protection against bits and bytes for several reasons. Legal proceedings were not only costly, but also involved lengthy investigations. By the time any legal shenanigans made it to court, the offending companies were often long gone and closed down, having made a bunch of money from counterfeit or copied arcade games. What’s more, court judges were unlikely to understand the nuances of these new-fangled video games and the role that copyright laws played on electronic and digital platforms.
It was a challenge for all companies, but especially Atari. Riding high and seen as the pioneers of many games and genres, they were constantly in a state of legal cat and mouse with the darker forces operating in the multi-million dollar arcade market.
But Atari were often proactive in their anti-piracy efforts. Clearly seeing legal proceedings and lawsuits as only part of the solution (and pretty ineffective), in 1981, they actually fielded a nationwide advertising campaign warning that it registered the audiovisual works associated with its games, together with a stern threat that it would vigorously pursue offenders:
Flexing its muscles as the largest producer of arcade games was one thing, but in-house, there was plenty of effort being put in place to try to stay one step ahead of the pirates right at the heart of the game – within the code itself.
In an internal memo dated July 17 1980, Ed Logg, the creator of Asteroids, wrote to his boss Steve Calfee, about what he called “Protection of Coin Operated Games”. In it, he describes a number of potential solutions to the issue of piracy and cloning of Atari arcade titles.
With the large numbers of copiers around the world copying our games, it is apparent that we should make some effort to prevent this.
A few ideas he puts forward included:
- The use of custom PCB chips and ICs
- Displaying Atari’s copyright notice on all screens – displaying the game’s title on-screen would be useful too. Even better, encode this part of the program’s code.
- Develop code within the game that routinely checks that the copyright message is actually being displayed. If the detection fails, shut down or “hang” the game
You can view the original document here.
There’s a cool story associated with this. You’ll note that Logg signs the document off with a warning:
One consideration you must also consider [sic] is to be sure these checks do not backfire on you.
Clearly, if implemented without great care, these coding practices desgined to thwart the pirates, could screw up a game during play, which would be bad news out in arcades around the world. The only game I am aware of to fall foul of such an oversight was Atari’s Tempest. There is an infamous coding bug within version 1 of the game, discovered when it launched to market. This bug caused the game to malfunction, awarding the player 40 free credits if a certain score was reached. Programmer Dave Theurer tells us exactly what happened:
Yes that was [my fault]. But it was intended as protection against piracy. I had about 6 levels of protection to prevent things such as removal of “Atari” from the various screens by unscrupulous Japanese and Italian counterfeiters. I had checksumming going on in many places to detect alterations to the code. If anything amiss was detected, I would trash RAM at random (sometimes using the last few digits of the score as the random number), sometimes after a delay of a few minutes.
As he had done with Missile Command, the ever meticulous Theurer had included as much copy protection as he could, making it very difficult for the counterfeiters to unravel the coding of the copyright message on-screen.
Unfortunately a bad thing happened: just before shipping, I rearranged some of the screens, moving the Atari logo more towards the center on one of them, and I forgot to change the 3rd or 4th level checksum protecting that location.
Within weeks of the game shipping, Atari received complaints from operators about kids playing Tempest for hours having mysteriously been awarding huge amounts of free games for no apparent reason.
At first I claimed that it was a hardware problem (of course). But then a hardware analyser in one of the labs caught the actual occurrence of the software trashing the coin count.
Theurer ate a large slice of humble pie, quickly identified the issue, rewrote the offending code, and in December 1981 Atari sent out a revised ROM chip to operators so they could fix the issue.
As an aside, one of the more unlikely tasks set to some Atari programmers was to analyse potentially pirated versions of their games. I’ve discovered an interesting legal document that details Ed Logg (clearly becoming known as something of an early security expert at Atari) breaking down pirated code from a cloned game, for the purpose of an imminent Canadian lawsuit. I’ll go in to much more detail on this in a future post, but suffice to say, many creators of pirated arcade games pleading innocence, were caught out once the raw evidence was presented in court.
There are many examples of manufacturers’ legal efforts to shut down examples of what they regarded as blatant rip-offs of their original ideas – all are probably worth looking at in more detail, which I may do at some point in the future but for now I’ve summarised a few below.
Nintendo vs Gongorilla:
Nintendo was far from shy in pursuing the counterfeiters, as reported in September 1982’s issue of “Cashbox”:
Note the article references the Donkey Kong bootleg game Gongorilla. A few examples of this cabinet exist today and are well sought after within the collecting community. Perhaps not so much for its game play, but for what the title represents in arcade history:
Atari vs Meteors:
At 1981’s AMOA video game trade show, a game called Meteors was on display. It was taken there by the five man company who created the game, with the intention of finding a manufacturer to licence it for distribution. Stephen Holniker, the CEO of the company concerned, Amusement World Inc, failed to get interest from anyone – which is not surprising, as the game bore a striking resemblance to Atari’s own Asteroids. One can imagine other manufacturers giving the game a wide berth given Atari’s reputation for litigation – perhaps they foresaw legal problems coming down the line.
But the company did pick up one thing from the show – legal proceedings from Atari themselves. At the United States District Court in Maryland, Atari Inc filed a suit against the company concerned, one Amusement World Inc. In it, it was alleged that on March 13, 1981, Atari (the plaintiff) first became aware that defendants were selling Meteors, which they regarded as being substantially similar to their hit game Asteroids. On March 18, 1981, Atari sent the defendants a cease and desist letter, which was ignored. Atari then went to the court to seek injunctive relief.
The upshot of the case was that while the judge found some similarities between the two games, he also found many significant differences. Probably the main one being that Asteroids was a black and white vector based game, whereas Meteors was a full colour raster based game with significantly more animations.
The court eventually ruled that it was not possible to copyright a genre of game and found in favour of the defendant. The court noted that copyright protection did not extend to the underlying idea behind a video game, but rather protects only the specific expression of that idea. In essence, Amusement World Inc were free to develop a game based around the idea and scenario of Asteroids, but could not copy the game itself.
Take a look at this video for more information about the game and the only Meteors cabinet known to exist:
The Meteors lawsuit makes for fascinating reading, and you can read the full judgement here.
Atari vs Super Missile Attack:
Another high-profile Atari legal case was that of Super Missile Attack. This game was developed by a handful of Massachusetts Institute of Technology student dropouts. They did this rather crudely but effectively decompiling Atari’s Missile Command code and rebuilding it into a new game. It was advertised in trade magazines and sold as a $295 add-on that operators could buy as a daughter PCB board, designed to be installed into a Missile Command cabinet no longer taking money.
The case was long and drawn out. Atari’s contention was that the game violated many of its copyrights, and was confusing for players who didn’t know if they were playing an Atari game. In a shrewd move, the MIT students counter-sued in their home state of Massachusetts, meaning that Atari had to fly its legal team and representatives across the country to physically appear in court in order to make their position clear. The defendants felt they had nothing to lose (they had little money, lived and worked in a shared house and were all in their early 20s) and made several counter-claims along the way, calling Atari witnesses by subpoena to testify throughout, frustrating the legal might at Atari.
Sensing either defeat or at least a very long drawn out and expensive case, Atari settled the suit out of court – Atari’s General Council, Skip Paul, sat the defendants down, bought them coffee, and asked a simple question – ‘What do you guys want?’.
The reply was simple. They explained that their company, General Computer Corporation, just wanted to create video games. Nothing more, nothing less.
Incredibly, Atari offered the team full-time employment to develop games on a handsome monthly retainer, if they immediately ceased sales of Super Missile Attack. This ultimately resulted in Quantum, Food Fight and other classic games released by Atari. The case came to an abrupt halt, with both parties happy. If you can’t beat ’em, give them a job!
This constant string of litigation was everywhere. Williams Electronics, Inc. brought a copyright action against several Canadian distributors and users of unauthorised copies of its Moon Patrol arcade game. On November 1, 1982, Williams obtained an order of the Court requiring one of the defendants to produce to Williams’ lawyers an affidavit setting out the names of its suppliers and customers of the supposedly illegal video games.
No one was safe from arcade related litigation during the Golden Age of arcade gaming, but with the legalities often taking months if not years to come to fruition, it was difficult for the big manufacturers to gain a satisfactory result. Most arcade games had a short shelf life, and shady manufacturers were often difficult to pin down: by the time copied games had been identified and investigated, the offending production run was complete, games had been sold into the marketplace, and the company responsible was usually long gone.
That’s your lot for this week – hope you found this look at the early days of arcade piracy.
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See you next time