Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for the ‘Software Piracy’ Category

A Reason to Disregard Copyright Law

Posted by Trixter on April 25, 2018

(This is a short rant about morals and obligations, not the ability to make money off of your work.  If you rely on copyright law to earn your living, you are not the audience for this article.  It is also not a call to action to break the law, which you do at your own risk without holding me responsible.)

Everyone knows that anything created more than 90 years ago is no longer eligible for copyright and is in the public domain, right?  Not so fast: In 2011, copyright law was amended in a way that affects audio recordings:  The composition might be public domain, but any recordings of it are not.  From https://www.copyright.gov/docs/sound/pre-72-report.pdf :

As a consequence of this legal construct, there is virtually no public domain in the United States for sound recordings and a 55 year wait before this will change. To put this in perspective, one need only compare the rules of copyright term for other works. For example, a musical composition published in 1922 would have entered the public domain at the end of 1997, but a sound recording of that same musical composition that was fixed the same year will remain protected for another 70 years, until 2067.

That means this recording from 1887 will somehow have a copyright term of 180 yearsThat’s seven generations.  But hey, the recording artist’s great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will still have the right to earn money off of the work or remove it from public consumption, and that’s the important thing, right?

It’s laws like this that turn people like Jason Scott into crazed archival psychopaths.  While I don’t agree with his methods, we definitely share the same concerns:  Copyright law in the US is not merely unrealistic, but works to actively and permanently destroy original works every year by preventing their archival.

I had this conversation with my father recently, who is a numismatist internationally recognized as an expert in some areas in his field. He has archives of the articles he’s written over the past 50 years, but wants none of it archived in a public forum because the work is technically under copyright under various publications’ names, and he holds a firm moral stance on playing by the rules. In my opinion, this dooms his work: None of those publications have publicly-accessible archives. His articles are already inaccessible (unless some library somewhere has numismatic publications from 40 years ago, which is not a realistic expectation as libraries these days are migrating towards digital as a way to save money and offer more services), so unless somebody does something, his work over the last half century will likely be lost forever.

Nobody cares about your work enough to preserve it after you’re gone. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done. The changes in information technology over the last 20 years have enabled the human race to produce so much content per second, over so many different topics and channels, that anything you produce has hardly any audience.  Worse, any tiny audience you might have rarely has the free time to consume it.  At the end of the day, that leaves a handful of people who consume your content and care about preserving it for future consumers, but the existing state of copyright law enforces penalties for that.  The days of printing a book and expecting it to be available in public libraries for 50+ years are long gone.

For those who desire copyright law so that they retain control over their work, realize this:  Our contribution to the world — our only purpose in life — is what we do, and what we leave behind.  If you write a book, it’s ostensibly because you have something to say, and want people to read what you have to say.  You create a work that you’re proud of, and release it into the world.  Copyright law grants you the right to request it destroyed at a later date, but it is selfish, petty, and immature to do so.

Posted in Software Piracy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Beyond Economic Recovery

Posted by Trixter on January 11, 2016

The phrase “Beyond Economic Recovery” is one of my favorite phrases because it succinctly describes how to determine if you can safely share an old program, manual, game, etc. online.  Please note that safe != legal.  It is always illegal to share things you don’t own and you are responsible for any repercussions if you break your country’s laws.  This post isn’t about whether it is legal.  This post is about whether or not you should be overly worried that you will be pursued by some IP holder’s legal department and sued into the ground.

This would be a good time to mention that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

Unless you are a large-scale pirating operation already under government investigation, what usually happens when infringement is discovered is that the infringing party is notified through a cease and desist letter.  Quick compliance with the terms of the letter is almost always enough to avoid further action.  But what if you are on a Quixote-like mission to share this rare vintage content with the world and really, REALLY want it to stay publicly available?  That’s when you apply The Phrase.

“Beyond Economic Recovery” isn’t my phrase; it was uttered to me in more than one interview I’ve had with lawyers on this specific subject.  Here’s how to use it:  Let’s say you want to share a 30-year-old game on the web for others to grab.  If you’re worried about legal repercussions, perform some due diligence and research if the company is actively using the work (the code, its trademarks, its intellectual property, etc.) to earn money, or has immediate or announced plans to do so. If so, such as in the case of Super Mario Brothers, don’t share it. But if not, as in the case of something like Space Strike, you have almost nothing to worry about.  When a company is made aware of infringement (usually discovered via automated google searches and machine learning), they perform a quick check of whether or not they would lose money sending the infringing party a cease and desist letter.  The average cost of a C&D letter, accounting for all time and services rendered, is roughly $4000.  If the company has an internal legal department or prepares communication in batches (or both), that number can be a little less, but it’s still thousands of dollars. So the mental check is essentially “Can we make more than $4000 on the asset or intellectual property this person is threatening to dilute by giving it away for free?” If the answer is “no”, they don’t bother sending a C&D letter.

The Internet Archive enjoys both non-profit status and various DMCA exemptions, which allows them to make various historically-relevant software works available online — but a DMCA exemption doesn’t prevent companies from sending them C&D letters to protect their trademarks or intellectual property.  (It also doesn’t succinctly define what is covered under the exemption, as it uses words like “obsolete” without defining what time period “obsolete” refers to.)  Some works that used to be public on the IA have since been hidden at the request of the IP holder.  For everything else that is still public there, The Phrase is the principle that “protects” those software portions of The Internet Archive; they are simply Beyond Economic Recovery.

Posted in Gaming, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 1 Comment »

Annoying adventures in disassembly: SNATCHIT

Posted by Trixter on February 5, 2015

SNATCHIT is a program written in the 1980s that loads COPYIIPC (a protected-disk copying program) and then interacts with it runtime to provide disk image saving and loading (features it did not ship with because such features expressly encouraged software piracy).  We used this in the 80s to transfer protected disk images around BBSes until someone could figure out how to crack the game and release it properly.

I recently had a need to run SNATCHIT on a 1GHz system.  I recycled an old system to become a box for dumping all my media, from floppy disks to memory cards to hard drives, something that can do it in the background without tying up my main machine. Because it’s a 1GHz system, SNATCHIT won’t run, even with hardware and software slowdowns.  I wanted to run it there because I have some 3.5″ protected disks I want to preserve, so I investigated patching it to work around whatever is tripping it up.  It’s a .COM file, the very easiest type of executable program for old PCs to reverse-engineer, debug, and patch — should be easy, right?

When I try to debug SNATCHIT.COM, I see it’s encrypted. Okay, not totally unexpected; simple encryption schemes were common at that time.  Let’s try patching it to decrypt and continue…  Okay, now it exploits a HLT bug to, I guess, fool debuggers (I didn’t see any PIC code disabling hardware interrupts, but whatever, maybe it was only partially implemented).  Loading in the DOSBOX debugger bypassed that.

Protip: As soon as you see anti-debugger tricks in something you’re debugging, bypass all of them by loading the program into an emulator debugger (such as the DOSBOX debugger).  This is an advantage that 25 years has given our hobby; in the 80s and 90s, the best we had was something like SoftICE, which wasn’t foolproof.  Running in an emulator debugger view is fantastic because the target program has no idea it is being inspected.

Work continued.  In a neat trick that I don’t fully understand yet, I found that on real hardware it puts a certain value in a register, but in the DOSBOX debugger it puts the wrong value and locks up. I don’t quite understand why, but DOSBox debugger lets me force a value, so I forced the correct value and kept going…

An hour later, I was tearing my hair out.  SNATCHIT, in that fine software pirate impress-your-friends-and-bury-your-enemies tradition, has multiple sections that decrypt, but not all at once, argh!  (In a pirate voice: “aarrrrrgh!”)  I had some of it decrypted in non-contiguous chunks, enough to see this:

db '(C) Copyright 1991, Software Pirates, INC.'
db ' Software Pirates will try to fool you'
db 'and hide code that you cannot find'
db 'and then decode it and then execute'
db 'this is to fake out the opposi$$$n,'

…and later:

; anything in (parenthesis) is not in the text, but implied

db '(they think) that they are smarter than us but no one can ever b'
db 'the infamous programmers that bring you the new and'
db 'fangled code thatknocks your socksoff and stinks up'
db 'the room and probbly your computeralso. Sometimes t(he)'
db 'best way to beat them is to look t(hem)'
db 'straight in the eye and ask them w!' (why) 

Great. Later, the somewhat ominous:

seg000:01D4 db 'PARITY ERROR, Continuing processing.',0Ah

Not only should that wording strike fear into your heart (parity errors are a BAD THING that should NOT CONTINUE PROCESSING), but this message proves they’re redirecting the NMI at some point. Gee, thanks.  I can’t wait to get to THAT chunk of joy.

In the end, I decided it was faster to pull a vintage system out of storage and put a 3.5″ drive in it.  I’m a Generation X guy going through multiple mid-life crises — I haven’t got time for this shit.

I would love to see the actual source code someday, if the programmer would ever come forward (statute of limitations is way over, so I’m crossing my fingers).  Hooking and patching copyiipc runtime was, and still is, incredibly impressive; the source would make a great read.  The last version of this tool was 1991, and I remember seeing Software Pirates, INC. stuff as early as 1984. That’s a pretty good run.

Posted in Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »

Journey’s End

Posted by Trixter on April 21, 2013

I was part of the first wave of people tackling the gigantic task of preserving personal computing gaming history in the early 1990s.  (I suppose pirating software in the 1980s counts too, but scanning materials and interviewing people began, for me, in the 1990s.)  Without connecting to others or knowing what was out there, I started to hoard software and hardware where financially possible and appropriate.  I collected software I considered hidden gems, that should be given their due in some public forum before being forgotten.  I grabbed many Tandy 1000s and other early PCs to ensure various works could be run and studied.  I was an original member of the abandonware movement.  I wrote articles on how to get old software running on modern machines, and contributed to software that did the same.  I co-founded the world’s largest gaming database so that information about these works could be consumed and researched by millions.

I did this all before Y2K.  When you’re the only guy shouting in a crowd, you tend to look the lunatic, and that’s pretty much how most of my friends and family saw me.

Look around the preservation landscape today and much of what I was working towards for years has come to pass.  There are many vintage hardware and software museums, both physical and virtual, including some dedicated to gaming.  There are some wonderful emulators that get closer and closer to the real thing each year.  There are even some curated collections online.  (There are many more curated collections offline, orders of magnitude larger than what is online, but in a decade or so I believe these will move online as well.)  Most importantly, there are established communities that support these efforts.  All in all, I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out.

Looking around all of my possessions inside my home, I see the fallout of what I was trying to accomplish many years ago.  I see no less than five PCjrs, three identical Tandy 1000s, three identical IBM PC 5150s, and multiples of Macs, Apples, C64s, and Amigas.  I see crates and bookshelves and closets filled with hardware and software.  I see clutter where there should be a nice desk for displaying a computer in a respectful way, or an easy chair for reading or watching TV.  It’s too much.  It’s time to let most of it go, and focus like a laser on the things that are the most important.  I will be disseminating most of my collection, both software and hardware, in the following year.

What I will continue to do, however, is archive and preserve software, as there is still a ton of IBM PC software from the 1980s that has not yet been released into the wild.  I am also committed to creating the “sound card museum” project I keep threatening to do.  To those ends, I will retain a few systems that will allow me to achieve both of those goals.

So, I’ll still keep buying and collecting vintage software — the difference is, I won’t retain the software after preserving it.  Consider me a vintage personal computing clearing house.

Posted in Family, Gaming, Home Ownership, Lifehacks, MobyGames, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | Tagged: , , | 11 Comments »

The PC Mockingboard

Posted by Trixter on September 9, 2011

I am a lucky owner of the IBM PC version of Bank Street Music Writer, which I purchased in 1986 using $85 of saved allowance through a friend’s older brother who worked at Babbage’s and could get it at a discount (normal cost was $150).  The Ad Lib Computer Music System wasn’t available yet, and for $245 I couldn’t have afforded it anyway.  $150 was a lot for a consumer-oriented music composition program, and with good reason:  It came with a sound board.  For the owner of a PC jealous of nearly every other home computer that came with decent sound hardware built in, this was the holy grail in a software box to me.

The software and packaging called it the Bank Street Music Writer card, and it was capable of six synthesized voices with different instrument types, some of which could be percussive.  If that sounds a lot like the Ad Lib, don’t be fooled — the output was square waves, the volume envelopes were controlled by the software, and the percussive sounds were made by mixing white noise with a waveform.  It sounded a lot like two PCjrs glued together.   Apple users are familiar with this sound:  It’s the Mockingboard.  The PC board doesn’t say anything like that on its PCB, and the components aren’t arranged the same way as they are on a real Mockingboard, but it sure sounded awfully similar.  So much so, in fact, that I pulled my card out of storage a few years ago to see if I could decipher it for adding support for it in MONOTONE.  I discovered it was built around a GI AY-3-8913, which itself is a smaller pincount version of the AY-3-8910, which was, in fact, the main chip on a Mockingboard.  But that was the only connection, and it was mostly conjecture on my part.

Until tonight.  I was browsing through The Internet Archives’ collection of Family Computing Magazines (thank you, Mr. Scott) when this caught my eye:

Well look at that — it is a PC version of the Mockingboard!  So at some point there was going to be a PC Mockingboard, but the only fabrication of it was as the “Bank Street Music Writer Card” bundled with Bank Street Music Writer.  You don’t see this written in any Mockingboard/Apple history, which is a shame because I’d be curious to know what the plans were and how far they got off the ground.  All we have proof of, thanks to Family Computing, is that they were planning to market it as a Mockingboard at some point.

This is easily the rarest sound card I have in my collection, and is probably the most rare and valuable PC sound card second only to the Innovation SSI 2001 music card, of which only two are known to still exist.  (Only one BSMW card is known to exist — mine — but remember the first lesson of the collector:  Rarity != value.)  And the Innovation has its own trump card:  It’s a PC version of the SID.

Scans of this card, reference samples of its output, and my interview with Glen Clancy about Bank Street Music Writer and it’s music file format will probably be inaugural entries in my Sound Card Museum project, which I will start building before the year is over.  If you can’t wait and want to hear what it sounds like right now, you can check out both a sample file that came with BSMW, or a piece of music I transcribed myself (a section of “Consider Yourself” from Oliver).

(PROTIP: Bank Street Music Writer also supports the PCjr and Tandy 1000 sound chip in a limited capacity, so you can snag BSMW from your favorite abandonware watering hole to play with it in DOSBOX.  It requires ANSI.SYS, so hopefully that won’t be a problem in DOSBOX.  If you’re especially lucky, it will come bundled with the songdisk I released with it so you can play with 20+ extra tunes.)

Posted in Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »

Learning to let go

Posted by Trixter on March 16, 2009

There’s a happy ending in here, so don’t cry for me Argentina.  Also, it rambles a bit.  These conditions should come as no surprise to those who know me.

For many collectors, librarians, and historians in the field of computer preservation, there is a line between “productive” and “OCD hoarding complex”.  I wouldn’t call it a fine line — it’s pretty broad — but a couple of measured steps in one direction and you can easily travel from museumland to crazyville.  My collection, for example, takes up about seven bookshelves (software) and about 700 cubic feet of space (computers/hardware in the basement and crawlspace).  I usually have three or four projects around me at a time, and so my work area is usually always quite cluttered.  For my current state of project completion, I consider myself right on the line:  If I acquire more stuff, it will progress from “cute little stockpile” to “life-threatening”.  If I let go of some stuff, it will migrate down to the happy state of “collection”.  But as a collector, it is against the fiber of my being to let go of… well, anything.

There are several things that tug at the heartstrings of a computer historian.  The most common is the occasional report of a large collection that was junked because the owner (or widow) didn’t know what they had.  Those are frequent enough (and geographically distant enough) that it’s easy to develop a callus.  Less common are when collections are offered directly to you, but you don’t have the space/money/time/permission/health/etc. to accept them.  Even less common are reports of collections that have been lost not due to negligence, but rather some sort of unexpected disaster (ie. fire, flood, etc.).  All of these royally suck ass, for lack of a more eloquent colloquial euphemism.  But the absolute worst is when you’ve done everything right — found assets, stored them properly, tagged and cataloged them — and circumstances dictate that it is you who needs to give them up before they have been fully processed.  And that time finally arrived for me.

I decided to let go of arguably the golden nugget of my collection:  My cache of Central Point Option Boards.  The personal aftermath of this decision surprised the hell out of me, as I actually feel… better about the entire experience.  (I lack the psychological knowledge to self-analyze why that is; suggestions welcome.) Why did I let them go?  So I could attend a demoparty.

Let’s talk about demoparties.

One of the things I look forward to most in life (other than family events, of course) is attending demoparties.  Europe is maggoty with demoparties (if you look hard enough, you will find at least one every weekend), but here in North America they are few and far-between.  The most amount of major NA demoparties we have had in a single year is two, and that was last year!  (And that won’t be repeated in 2009 because NVision will not occur this year.)  And because NA is so big, it can be a significant financial investment to get to one if you don’t live nearby.  Luckily, Jason Scott — probably at significant personal detriment — has committed to putting on no less than five annual large demoparties, which he both organizes and hosts.  This year is the third one, and although it isn’t as big as some Euro parties, it definitely has the correct vibe, which is a major accomplishment for being so far away from the demoscene nexus.  It’s got a room away from the convention that hosts it all decked out for coding, watching demos, meeting with sceners, listening to demo tunes, etc.  There are compos (including a true wild compo) in front of an audience of at least 200 people.  There are many scene in-jokes floating around.  There is booze of exotic varieties, ranging from home brews to salmiakkikossu (salmari) and a lot inbetween.  About the only thing missing is a bonfire — which is admittedly very difficult, since most NA demoparties are inside convention centers, hotels, or schools.

I mention the demoscene stuff because it is one of my first loves — and the Option Board is another.  In fact, my involvement with the Option Board (is this starting to sound dirty?) goes as far back as 1987.  I became so intimate with it (yeah, this is starting to sound dirty; my apologies) that I began to develop a sense for what settings to give the software based on the publisher of the game I was trying to copy before I even looked at the disk.  Even today, I use Option Boards in my hobby work, sometimes even transferring difficult disk images to overseas colleages who are more adept at cracking than I am, so that they can be dismantled and released into the wild.

So.  I love demoparties and I love my collection of Option Boards.  I lacked the money to go to Block Party this year.  I could sell the Option Boards, to get the money, but I hadn’t properly archived them yet (meaning, put up a web page about them, describe them and their usage, trivia, etc.), which is something I usually spend months doing — because I am anal about stuff like that.  I was stuck.

So how did I resolve these two diametrically-opposed objectives?  I cheated. I decided to perform a best effort at a quick documentation and archival process, and then sell them.  For a single weekend, every spare moment of time was spent scanning manuals and other materials, copying software, taking photos, and writing up a small history of the boards and how to use them.  All of this was organized into the Option Board Archive, which is now available for your leeching pleasure.  In an age where the DMCA is used for repeated abuse, the Option Board is a historical curiousity: A product marketed specifically to break the law (if you used it inappropriately), so I am glad to have had the chance to make my contribution to the world of Option Board history.  And as for the boards themselves, they are on their way to their new owners.  Two of them are going to a computer history museum in Germany; another is going to the KEEP project in France; the other three are going to private collectors with an active interest in using them to further their vintage computing hobby.

I can’t see a downside to this:

  • I get to go to Block Party, on my own terms (I’m paying my own way — my attendance is not conditional on any obligations.  That means a lot to me.)
  • I got the damn things archived and documented
  • I get to see other vintage computing hobbyists enjoying the boards
  • My family gets to see some more clutter go out the door

Life is good.

So does this mean I’m going to start liquidating everything I have, to achieve a zen-like state of higher conciousness?  Um, hell no — at least, not before I’ve had a chance to archive it all properly.  2010 will be the year of the soundcard museum, mark my words.  Now where did I put those Interwave cards…

PS:  I saved two boards for myself.  I’m not that crazy.

Posted in Demoscene, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »

The diskette that blew Trixter’s mind

Posted by Trixter on September 28, 2008

As an IBM PC historian, one aspect of my hobby is archiving gaming software.  (You can take that statement to mean anything you want — whatever you think of, you’re probably right.)  At the 2008 ECCC this past Saturday, a vendor wanted to offload his entire PC stock on me for $5, which I happily accepted since there was at least one title in there (Martian Memorandum) worth that much.  When I got home, however, I found two additional Avantage (Accolade’s budget publishing title) titles that have not yet been released “into the wild”.  This means there are no copies of these games floating around on Abandonware sites.  For me, this was like finding actual gold nuggets in a collection of Pyrite.

The two games I got were Mental Blocks and Harrier7, so they join my third Avantage title Frightmare.  I decided to archive all three properly, and it was when I got to Mental Blocks that I ran into something I’d never seen before: The manual for Mental Blocks claims that, for both C64 and IBM, you put the diskette in label-side up.  I thought that had to be a typo, since every single mixed C64/IBM or Apple/IBM diskette I have ever seen is a “flippy” disk where one side is IBM and the other side is C64 or Apple — until I looked at the FAT12 for the disk and saw that tons of sectors in an interleaved pattern were marked as BAD — very strange usage.

The Incredibly Strange FAT of Mental Blocks That Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Formats

The Incredibly Strange FAT of Mental Blocks That Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Formats

A DIR on the disk shows that only about 256K of it is usable as space, instead of 360K.  My Central Point Option Board’s Track Editor (TE.EXE) confirmed that every other track on side 0 cannot be identified as MFM data.  So the manual is correct, and this truly is a mixed-format, mixed-architecture, mixed-sided diskette.

This diskette has officially blown my mind.

This is the very first time I have ever seen something like this.  The data for the IBM program takes up more than 160KB as evidenced by a DIR.  The C64 1541 drive is a single-sided drive; IBM’s is double-sided. Based on all this, we can deduce how this diskette is structured and why:

– The IBM version of the game required more than 160KB (ie. needed more than one side of a disk), probably because it has a set of files for CGA/Herc (4/2 colors) and another for EGA/Tandy (16 colors) and either set will fit in 160K but both won’t
– The C64 version required around 80K, based on the fact that every other track is unreadable by an IBM drive
– The publisher had the requirement of using only a single disk to save on packaging and media costs
– Not wanting to limit the game to either CGA or EGA, someone at Artech (the developer) built the format of this diskette BY HAND so that DOS would not step on the C64 tracks, and somehow the C64 would also read/boot the disk

I don’t know how the C64 portion boots since track 0 sector 0 looks like a DOS boot sector, but quick research shows that C64 disks keep their index on track 18.  If anyone knows how C64 disks are read and boot, I’d love to know.

I think I need to go on a mission to discover who built the disk format(s) by hand to see what he was thinking.  Did he work on it for weeks, feverishly trying to figure out how to meet the publisher’s demands?  Or was he so brilliant that he did it all in a day or so, not thinking too much about it other than it was just another facet of his job?  Fascinating stuff!

Just goes to show that you can still get surprises in this hobby after 25 years, even after being considered one of the top 20 “subject experts” for PC oldwarez.  I guess you truly can never see it all.

Posted in Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 180 Comments »

From Courier To Supplier

Posted by Trixter on July 21, 2008

Half of my friends will read the title of this entry and think “Courier? US Robotics Modem?” and the other half will think “warez”. This article is for the latter half.

Back in the mid-1980s, there were essentially two places you could get warez from: Friends, and BBSes. You might find the occasional bootleg in a store, but 99% of the scene was about personal hook-ups and online trading. Young Trixter started out his computer gaming life getting games from friends and spreading them to BBSes for download credits, then using those credits to download other games to add to his collection (and spread to more friends and BBSes.) In warez parlance, young Trixter was a courier: A person who spreads games from person to person and place to place.

At first, copying software was about trying cool games for his new computer. But after a while, young Trixter became a bit obsessed and wanted to take things to the next level. What’s the next level for a waycourier? A supplier. A supplier is someone who supplies the games to the crackers in the first place. Software piracy begins with suppliers; they’re the first link in the chain. Suppliers can be anyone and come from anywhere, like software engineers providing beta copies to friends, people who work in the packaging companies or distribution warehouses that let a box or two fall off the back of the truck, or people who work at software stores. Young Trixter was the latter.

Exactly two months after young Trixter turned 16, he started working at Babbage’s, a software store chain located in a nearby mall. In his defense, he started working there not to become a supplier, but because it was a dream job to be surrounded by software and people talking about software. (That, and his existing job of bagging groceries was, shall we say, a demoralizing endeavor that left emotional scars.) But when young Trixter found out that Babbage’s had a take-home policy (let’s pause for a second and reiterate that they had a TAKE-HOME POLICY), his path was set in motion.

The take-home policy existed in a time before software viruses, where you were not merely allowed but encouraged to take software home to try it out, so that you could learn more about it to help sell it to customers. Some stores even had machines in the back room that you could play with to this end (off the clock, of course). When you brought it back the next day, you simply used the shrinkwrap machine in back to re-shrink the package, resticker it, and put it back out on the shelf. You can imagine how many neurons exploded in young Trixter’s head when he learned he could do this.

It wasn’t all milk and honey; there were roadblocks. Most game software was copy-protected. Some software came in an envelope that, were you to open it, indicates your acceptance of the EULA (but more importantly, destroys the envelope). But young Trixter was determined. For envelopes, he tried many experiments and eventually found that a very thin knife, passed extremely slowly between the flap and the envelope, could separate most glues without damaging the paper. He would reseal it with rubber cement, which mimicked most glue textures used on EULA envelope flaps. A few envelopes would require a hot air blower to melt the glue, but this wasn’t a problem because all software stores conveniently had one next to the shrinkwrap machine (because heat was needed to, you know, shrink the wrap). After confessing his refined envelope method to a co-worker a few months later, young Trixter was shocked to hear the other young man’s alternate solution, which was almost zen-like in it’s simplicity: Simply throw the opened envelope away. Customers don’t get mad over opened envelopes if they don’t know an envelope was ever in the package.

The copy-protection proved to be a much more difficult problem. Young Trixter was not a cracker; he didn’t have the assembler experience for that (yet). What he did have was fierce determination, strong drive, lots of caffeine, and a teenager physiology that could withstand days without sleep. So young Trixter spent months learning all about how diskette-based copy-protection works on the IBM PC. He researched copy utilities, unprotectors, decryptors. Some games he could unprotect himself using tools and knowledge, and this allowed them to be supplied and couriered. He discovered Snatchit and was able to use it to supply protected diskette images to crackers. For the most stubborn of all software, he spent half a month’s pay on a Central Point Option Board, which not only dominated diskettes but also allowed the truly difficult software to be supplied to a few select crackers who also had Option Boards by trading special “TransCopy images” in secluded BBS file areas.

Life was good. Young Trixter eventually went to college, and reverted back to courier while away because his supply had been cut off, but upgraded to supplier again when working summers at a new store, Egghead Software. But it couldn’t last. The end of young Trixter’s warez involvement was ended by a few events that occurred almost simultaneously: Jim Seymour of PC Magazine wrote an article about how he bought a piece of software from CompUSA (called Soft Warehouse back then) and how, when he went to install it, found someone else’s name burned into the bits. (A customer had installed the software, which wrote his name onto the disks, then returned it to the store and they reshrinked and resold it.) Around that time, the Michelangelo virus got major media coverage. These two events killed the take-home policy that most software stores employed. But even if they hadn’t, the Option Board was losing the cat-and-mouse game of publishers vs. pirates: Every time a new release came out, two things happened:

  • Publishers complained voraciously and a few of them, under threat of litigation, got Central Point to alter the next release of the software so that SekretProtektionSkeme-X could not be copied with an Option Board
  • Some protection authors studied the Option Board so well they they were able to come up with schemes that fooled the board or its software into producing a less-than-perfect copy (Cop’s Copylock II comes to mind)

But it wouldn’t matter for long, because the creator/maintainer of the Option Board died, and Central Point was purchased by Symantec, so that coffin was finally nailed shut. Eventually, young Trixter threw himself into the demoscene, where he had fun creating and enjoying software instead of copying and hoarding it, and the warez chapters of his life story came to a close.

Or did they?

Remind me sometime to tell you about the oldwarez boyz. Or the birth of Abandonware. Or Demonlord’s protection diary. Until then, take a peek at the back of young Trixter’s Babbage’s business card, which had all of the primary SKUs written down and what they were for. If you ever wanted to know what a software store stocked in 1987, well… now you know.

That’s right: SKUs for printer ribbons and diskette holders. How times have changed.

Posted in Software Piracy | 9 Comments »

Collecting and Programming

Posted by Trixter on May 25, 2008

Just a quick note that Slashdot posted a main-page post about software collecting, one of my oldest hobbies.  I personally weighed in, of course.

For those not following MONOTONE, I released another alpha yesterday with Adlib support and more effects.  Still not finished, but it’s starting to become usable and interesting now :)

Posted in Programming, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 3 Comments »

Government workers are so very helpful

Posted by Trixter on October 25, 2006

In all my days of computing, the software that has impressed me the most has been software that pushes a machine seemingly beyond its limits, making it do things that it was never meant to do. One such piece of software was ICON: The Quest For The Ring. It tweaked CGA to within an inch of its life, displaying 16-color graphics on a video card only meant for four ugly colors in graphics mode.

I’m a software collector. I collect vintage retail packages of software as a hobby. (I’m comfortable enough with my nerditude to admit this, so go ahead and mock me — I don’t mind.) So imagine the nerdly dance of joy I did when I found that ICON was up for auction, bid on it, and won! The package I’d been searching for for over two decades, the game that had inspired me to learn assembler and graphics tweaking, the game that shaped my hobbyist world, would finally be mine!

That’s where the governmental workers come into the story. It seems that they were in need of a football to relieve the overwhelming tension and stress of delivering packages, so what I actually received was this:

If you’re not familiar with the hobby of software collecting, I can sum it up in five words: The Value Is The Box. 90% of a software collectable’s value is in how good a condition the box is, then the printed materials inside it, then the diskette labels, then finally the actual software code itself. (Why? Because most software has been pirated already… and most people throw away the box and lose the manuals.)

My twenty-year dream quite literally crushed, I decided to visit my local US Postal Services office to file the claim for the $50 I had paid for it. And this is where we again meet our lovable and cute governmental workers, for here is what I learned today about insuring packages:

  1. You have to provide proof of the item’s value. So if the USPS determines that your item is worth less than what you insured it for, and you cannot provide any “documented proof” (the validity of which is at the government worker’s discretion, of course) that it is worth more, you get what they are willing to give you, not what it is actually worth. This is how they justify giving you less money than the value you wrote down on the form when requesting insurance, they always offer a very cheap car insurance but then you end up with such bad service or no service at all.
  2. You cannot insure something for more than what you paid for it. See #1 for rationale. So if you completely luck out and find an Akalabeth with a Buy It Now of $4, the most you can insure it for is $4 even though its value is anywhere from 10 to 150 times that value.
  3. If your item is only slightly damaged, and you want to keep it, you can’t. You must completely give over every single thing you are filing a claim for, never to be seen again. This means that there is no protection against *partial* damage — if it’s partially damaged, bend over, since you can’t get partial money for it.

See, all this time I was under the silly impression that, if you insured something for a certain dollar value, that was the value they were going to give you when you showed them it was damaged. Or that maybe, just maybe, you were insuring it against partial damage — like depreciation or something. How wrong I was: Insurance is only protection against complete and total destruction of property and/or complete and total loss of delivery. If it *arrives*, and is only *somewhat* damaged, you’re shit out of luck! How glad I am to be educated! (although I could have done without the “bending over the table” portion of my education)

So what did I do? I made the obvious determination that something I had been searching two decades to locate — in *any* condition — was worth more than the $15 or so they were going to give me for it. So I tore up the claim form, took back the item, and left. Since then, I have been researching cardbox box reconstruction techniques, for I am not only a nerd, but a stubborn nerd.

About the only satisfaction I got from today’s visit was the audible popping noise the government worker’s synapses made snapping apart into individual neurons as I tried to explain that, yes Daisy Mae, the value really was the BOX itself and not the contents inside it. The complete and total lack of understanding confused her to such a degree that she was unable to blink her eyes in unison for at least 10 minutes after I stopped talking. I could have done without the drool, though.

Posted in Gaming, Programming, Software Piracy, Vintage Computing | 5 Comments »