Everyone had a favorite videogame shop as a kid, where plenty of happy – or perhaps, not-so-happy – memories took place. Maybe it was EG or a Game, if one is UK based, or perhaps a Gamestop, Blockbuster or a mom-and-pop shop even. As for me, well, most of my games, as a child, I bought them at newspaper kiosks. A history of Italian software piracy would not really be complete without making clear to the public how blatant and professional the industry of piracy was since, indeed, those were unauthorized copies of copyrighted C64 titles, sold as originals. Yes, that was perfectly normal, it was possible to buy pirated games all over Italy and barely anyone noticed or cared.
Let us hop on the Vespa and get ready for this eventful journey around “il Belpaese” and its dubious relationship with copyrighted software all throughout the 80s and 90s.
Software piracy is, naturally, a problem that has affected the industry ever since its early days: there have been dozens of articles dedicated to copy protection, the Atari vs Coleco suit and the immortal (and vague) concept of “abandonware”. It always has been a hot topic, especially for such a relatively young medium like videogames. Still, Italy is the only European country – that I know of – where counterfeiting has been, for such a prolonged period of time, not only blatant, but produced and sold on a national industrialized scale.
Up until 1993 it was entirely possible to sell unlicensed software on the entire Italian territory with only minor legal risks. Only by the end of 1992, also probably only because the EU requiring all national members to do so, a law that took into consideration all types of copyright protection was passed. That would signal the beginning of the end of Italian software piracy, at least as a legitimate business. Since the early Eighties, pirated games in Italy were being regularly sold, with many apparently “legit” retail shops having a pretty lucrative business on the side, making on-the-fly copies at the customers’ request.
This was only the beginning: in the mid 80s, in order to meet the market’s ever-growing demand, piracy would grow larger and more organized. Pirated games started being sold in compilations and on newspaper stands. Basically, the cracked games were being sold to the retailers by the “crackers” themselves, commanding pretty high prices for the “hotter” titles. Some of them managed to get rich pretty quickly, especially because this was a shadow economy with no state control nor taxation.
Italian software piracy as a legitimate business operation
Soon, legitimate registered companies began to publish unlicensed software themselves. Not in computer shops, but in actual brick and mortar stores like newspaper kiosks and toy shops. My mother once bought me a “Busta sorpresa”, these were an hybrid between a blind bag and a sort of modern “nostalgic lootbox”, filled with random unsold knickknacks. Inside one of those generic looking blind bags, I did find an unboxed C64 cassette, with no instructions whatsoever, that obviously contained pirated games (Hopeless was one of the games inside it).
Since the original pre-1993 copyright law didn’t specifically mention software among protected properties, no court of law could issue criminal penalties, since Italian penal law dictates that no one can be punished without an ad-hoc norm for the crime. Still, in the civil courts, judicial interpretation of the original copyright law did help software houses win at least some of the battles. These hearings though, as per the norm with the Italian court system, took years to come to a sentence and, naturally, required a serious economical interest by the parties involved. The courts also didn’t help with the few copyright-related cases that were brought to their attention: in the early 80s a court dismissed one of such cases, saying games weren’t worthy of copyright protection because “they were little more than a bunch of rules and definitions put together”.
The developer or publisher interested in bringing pirates in front of a judge had to be established in Italy or had sustained substantial economic losses to justify spending time and money to go to court. Naturally, few companies could afford such an investment, especially in a confusing market such as that of video games in the early 80s that was already under-developed to begin with. Let’s not forget that, even at the end of the decade, a game was considered successful if it sold 10.000 copies: the Italian market was even smaller. Thus, because of the limited profitability, compared to well developed markets like UK and America, along with the legal system being decrepit and impossibly slow to react, the pirates felt safe from harm.
By 1986, the counterfeiting industry was so widespread that some of those companies reported selling a million copies of said “repackaged” titles. Still, the pirates wanted to avoid all possible risks: lists of software houses that weren’t to be trifled with because of their notorious litigiousness circulated among the “operators”.
The few legitimate Italian companies that had an agreement with overseas publishers, among them Miwa Trading for Activision software’s titles, actually went bankrupt because of poor sales. Other people, like John Holder, head of Leader publishing company, realized that stopping them was impossible, so he decided to force some of the pirates to an agreement to, at least, get back some of their profits. This was made possible also because the people profiting from selling pirated games were more afraid of the national revenue service than the police.
Even if one rejected the idea of buying a pirated game, by the mid 80s the choice wasn’t even there anymore, such was the grip of piracy on the market. At one point, especially in smaller cities, buying an original game ended up being almost impossible because original games just weren’t being sold anymore: either one resorted to piracy or had to import the title from overseas, bearing the added costs.
What is important to note here is how unprejudiced the Italian counterfeiting industry was. Since it was possible to buy unlicensed software in shops that didn’t even sell computers or consoles, this contributed to the public perception – still somewhat present today – that this kind of national and industrial software piracy was a “minor forgivable offense”. Most people had no idea they were actually buying pirated software. Personally, as a kid I felt that there was indeed something fishy going on, seeing Pac-man called “Pallino” (polka-dot), but, of course, I never fully realized what was really happening behind the scenes.
One crucial piece of the puzzle, contributing significantly to the shift from “retail” selling of pirated games to nationwide distribution of unauthorized software, was the audio tape. It was easy to duplicate, cheap to manufacture and sell, it could also contain more than one game, thus companies could also start raising their profits by selling compilations. The reputation of the tape was such that legit companies refused to carry games on it, adopting cartridges and floppies instead. After the medium’s decline for home computers, it’s no wonder that piracy in 1993 came to a screeching halt, slowly going back to the retail business model, which was still viable for Amiga and PC.
Naturally, cassette tapes were also prone to being faulty and it was very common for at least one game on those compilations to be unplayable. Still, the companies did offer free replacements, the pirate industry could really offer great customer support.
Let us look at some of the biggest cases of industrial piracy in Italy.
The tale of Armati cassettes
One common trait to the business scheme of many of the companies and individuals that sold tapes and floppies is that their responsibility began and ended with packaging and publishing; the crackers would do all the dirty work while remaining solely responsible for the content that they published. It was pretty common for the companies to ask the young programmers to sign a sort of indemnity, which forced the crackers to insert their “names” as developers, hence keeping the publisher safe from legal issues.
Mario Arioti (or Armati, as he was known in piracy circles) is a pivotal figure in the early Italian piracy market. Arioti, already working in the business of reproducing ordinary audio tapes, saw a huge business opportunity in using the very same technology to produce copies of video games. By the early 80s, just outside Bologna, he had created a whole successful industry by repackaging and selling cracked games all over the territory. Armati’s operation was pretty simple: the cover was changed while everything else was left intact, including the original title. I had a couple of those cassettes as well.
The reach of its cassettes and the profits of that industry were such that, one of the first software houses in Italy, Simulmondo, initially leaned on the robust distribution of the Armati industry, in order to more easily reach and create an audience for their games. Basically, there were not many other choices. Riccardo Arioti, Mario’ son, joined Francesco Carlà – Simulmondo’s founder – by creating the Italvideo company. Pretty soon after the agreement, Riccardo Arioti left, going on to found the other software house in Bologna, Genias.
The reasons for the split, according to Carlà is – again – piracy. Mario Arioti was among the first to repent on his swashbuckling business, deciding to work, from 1986 onward, alongside software publishers and publishing legitimate licensed software, even some developed in Italy. Despite his intentions, still, he apparently kept on releasing pirated games, something that Carlà wanted to distance his company from, thus the split. In the last interview he gave to a magazine, in 1987, Arioti said he was still selling pirated software “as to avoid other competitors getting in the business”.
The miracle of San Gennaro: the "Napoletane"
In the multicolored world of Italian software piracy, there was one product that stood proudly alone: the cassettes produced in Napoli. They were called napoletane (literally “from Napoli”): an umbrella term which identified a bunch of programmers who worked with newspaper kiosks and shops via specific agreements, masquerading behind various names like Alga Soft, F.S.N. or Penguin Soft.
The crackers downloaded the software via BBS, cracked it, produced the cassettes and sold them, with no business intermediary. They worked with such rapidity that it was possible to find all of the titles the magazine Zzap! had reviewed, within a few days from the publication of the newest issue. For the average consumer, the “napoletane” were the best of both worlds: not only the original names were left intact and the games untouched, but a single cassette contained many new releases, along with trainers and cheats, a much needed feature back then.
The “napoletan pirates” were pretty market-savvy, hence they also offered releases with longer multiload titles – sold for the equivalent of 6 dollars/euros in today’s money for a single game – or a double cassette for the price of 10. By selling without intermediaries, the swashbucklers from Napoli could offer low prices for relatively high quality products. Apparently the “napoletane”, even though continuing production until 1992, never seemed to reach nationwide distribution, probably because of the small scale the pirates operated on. Personally, I never saw them in any of the kiosks in my city of Roma, even though I remember having at least one of them.
SIPE and Edigamma: quantity over quality
One based in Milano, the other in Roma, SIPE and Edigamma were among the better organized players in pirated software sold in shops all over the national territory. Their products were worlds apart from Armati and “napoletane” cassettes: theirs was a case of quantity over quality, along with a radically different business model.
According to SIPE, their compilations came about because it was impossible for Italian companies to find a satisfying agreement with the original publishers in order to distribute titles for a fair price. Those few legit C64 games that appeared on the market in 1983/84 were indeed quite expensive, especially for such simple gameplay. An average Commodore 64 title, back then, costed in the realm of 200-250 modern euros/dollars, basically 1/10th of the price of the computer itself. A family with an average income could afford to buy, at the most, one game per month. By 1987, though, prices had dropped drastically, it was possible to buy a legit game for around 50 euros/dollars, and even less for Mastertronic titles. Alas, it was too late.
One compilation of unlicensed software went for something like 5 dollars/euros today, others with more games costed just a little more. Hence, SIPE and Edigamma made up a variety of different products distributed under a kaleidoscope of names and formats, trying to pass themselves as legitimate magazines, even going as far as including gadget like t-shirts and pins. Still, all those different “magazines” were just the same thing being recycled over and over: compilations of unlicensed cracked games.
SIPE and Edigamma's business model: the strategy of confusion
SIPE and Edigamma were arguably the more organized among the various Italian software piracy market players, also the ones responsible for the rapid descent into the incredible late 80s/early 90s confusion. They went about publishing pirated games with a Jeff Bezos-worthy business plan: avoid all possible legal risks and keep costs at a minimum. The crackers were given a very specific set of instructions to follow, such as destroying all references to the original game. Title, programmer/software house, even the plot and characters’ names, especially if licensed from a movie or comic book. Everything was mercilessly deleted or modified beyond recognition.
Since there was little-to-no quality control, the crackers would go on about hacking the games’ structure as they saw fit. It might be fair to argue that many smaller titles that would have never been released on the Italian market. At least, the crackers made these games available, along with a somewhat sensible Italian translation. Well, true, but unfortunately the end product was quite often mediocre at best. One couldn’t really count on those homemade translations to make any kind of sense, since, again, they were based on stories and characters made-up on the spot by the crackers themselves. Still, changing the characters’ names was only the tip of the iceberg of confusion.
Those compilations rapidly became bottom of the barrel junk: they contained dozens of simple titles that would only guarantee a chance to play a somewhat recognizable version of the original game. This meant that there was no guarantee that it could even be finished, nor that it was even complete to begin with. As long as the game ran on the home computer, SIPE and Edigamma were happy and would publish it.
When C64 games started becoming slightly more complex, with multi loads or requiring more than one cassette, SIPE and Edigamma instructed the crackers to cut up single levels from longer titles in order to make several games out of one. For example, The Last Ninja 2 came out as 6 or 7 different games, which were almost impossible to piece together. This also meant that the ending sequences were removed altogether. In the single titles, the game would just freeze after reaching the end.
Title screens for the various "episodes" of The Last Ninja.
By 1988, business for both SIPE and Edigamma was booming, while the quality dropped through the floor and confusion ran rampant. Trying to find all levels of a multiload game on the various publications was nigh impossible: the companies never really did care for their products to make any sense. It is very common for Italian gamers of a certain age to go around asking for the original title of a game, even though not always that helps. After finding out the title, one can find themselves even more confused, realizing that – for example – only level three was included in the pirated version.
Perhaps one would think that, at least, the “pirated” title would stick and that SIPE and Edigamma would at least follow THEIR OWN naming convention. Nope. Not only every company used different names for the same game, some of them would release levels of the same game under different titles. It was basically useless to check the titles before buying a compilation, as to avoid buying duplicates or trying to make sense of one game, even if they were released by the same company.
Let’s examine some examples of this confusion.
The SIPE-Edigamma naming convention
Sipe and Edigamma’s mission statement was never to translate the original title, since their only objective was releasing as many games as possible while, naturally, maximizing their profits. They left the crackers free to decide whatever titles they wanted, as long as it wasn’t too similar to the original. Most times, the crackers just replaced the title with random words that would fit within the allowed character limit, otherwise the screen would look corrupted. Sometimes, it would look corrupted anyway. Again, not that they cared.
The companies also had a pretty nasty habit of switching original titles around, reaching such heightened levels of confusion as the unauthorized Italian horror movie sequels of the 80s. For example, behind the pirated “Samurai Warriors” there wasn’t really a version of Samurai Warrior: the battles of Usagi Yojimbo: it was actually Way of the Exploding Fist. The Usagi Yojimbo game came out under four different names for various companies: Karma, Harakiri, Kendo San, Samu Ray. Well, on the bright side, at least they do sound like vaguely inspired by the original game and not entirely made up.
The Bruce Lee game? It came out under such titles as Banzai, China Chen, Karate and Karate box [sic]. What about a classic beloved title, like Rainbow Arts’ Turrican? It came out as Frexxan, Go and Job. Most times, they were just using random mishmash of words that barely made sense. As mentioned, Edigamma didn’t care to assist the player in identifying sequels, hence Turrican 2 was just renamed Jehl.
Boulder Dash was gifted a wondrous kaleidoscope of ten different alternate titles. Rockman, Space Roc [sic], Vanga Man, Pedro, Jump in, Diamonds, Escavator, Firefly, Rolling Stones and Zep. Finally, Creatures and its sequel came out under what could only be described as a random assortment of nonsensical words: Bongers, Fantasy, Gun Machine, Helf, Help Beards and Morxe.
As an added bonus for giving them more money, some of SIPE and Edigamma’s more “luxurious” (hence, expensive) releases were graced with several poorly made loader screens, which actually seemed to be, sometimes, vaguely inspired by the pirated games themselves. Still, for the most part they looked like random images vaguely based on the pirated title itself.
Here’s a small gallery for your viewing pleasure.
While this article focuses on the Commodore 64, nationwide piracy hit almost every single home computer with a tape player. The chance of someone bothering to claim copyright on a ZX Spectrum or MSX game was also pretty slim, hence the Commodore 64 compilations usually also contained games for other home computers as well. Italian magazines of the time went as far as calling it a “third world situation”,indeed they were pretty much right.
National software development was basically non existent in the early eighties and even beyond: almost no one wanted to produce and distribute legal titles. There was no apparent reason why a publisher or producer should risk investing in a title developed from a relatively unknown local programmer, when a compilation of pirated software was a safe bet with no serious legal risks involved.
This meant that Italy ended up basically skipping altogether the so-called “bedroom programmers” of the early 80s, at least on a commercial level. The situation changed only in the following years, after the mid 80s when the first software houses started to appear: Lindasoft, Simulmondo, Genias. Still, all of these software houses suffered from piracy, which was also the same fate met by Zaccaria, which in 1983 was among the top 3 companies in the world for production of pinball machines, and among the top 10 for arcade games, with almost 200 employees. By 1984, they stopped developing games altogether and would focus only on pinball machines, changing name years later.
If one bright side can be found in this decade of pirating software, it would be the massive success of home computers in Italy and, consequently, the less than impressive sales of consoles, since games commanded outrageous prices all the way through the 90s. Many of the developers who would work in Italy in the mid-to-late 90s, all cut their teeth on the Commodore 64 or the Amiga.
But, as mentioned, this relative bright side came at the cost of sacrificing the entire Italian videogame industry which was never able to compete on an European level. Capitals to grow and expand were very limited, since the State was not interested in investing. It is no wonder then that, beside a few names like Milestone, which carved themselves a niche for racing games, no other software houses managed to survive beyond the 90s.
Pirata (Pirate) was a very interesting case in the history of pirate magazines, in that it was actually published by a legitimate software publisher who was desperately trying to get the original software developers to notice the situation and take action. They started releasing original games bundled with the magazines, with titles and covers unchanged, just to see how far they could take it before someone would take legal action.
In the end, no one noticed and the Pirata magazine ended after just a few numbers.
Arcade games were not exempt from being copied either. There was a whole black market of people working with arcade boards bought at various European fairs which would then proceed to copy each chip on the board by hand, in order to create a sort of 1:1 copy, to be sold all over the territory in hundreds of specimens. These so called “cantinari” (cellarmen) were real experts at what they were doing, but unfortunately, things got a bit out of hand when Mortal Kombat was released.
Several of the pirated MK boards ended up reaching the US, where Midway did not really take kind to the idea of someone replicating them and actually alerted the FBI. The boards were soon traced back to Italy where the culprits were then arrested: it was the very first big sting related to piracy, by 1993, and did indeed signal the end of the era.
If there is one thing to be learned from history is its tendency to repeat itself, but this seems not to be the case. Still, during the PlayStation era (1997-2002), piracy also ran pretty much rampant. While I won’t go into details here, the piracy industry in the late 90s wasn’t as professionally organized as in the 80s and early 90s. Also, perhaps most importantly, these Ps1 games did not have an aura of legitimacy: no one buying a burned copy of Gran Turismo on the streets, thought it was perfectly normal.
Here’s hoping that the country can learn from past mistakes, in order to change things for the better for all future Italian software developers. To end on a personal note: if it wasn’t for piracy, I probably could have never afforded to buy the staggering amount of C64 games I did as a child. In a way, I’m thankful to Sipe, Edigamma and the napoletan pirates. They contributed significantly to make me the gamer I am today and opened my eyes to so many wonderful games which I still come back to and I regularly write about.
In a way, while still hoping that they never come back, thank you, ye glorious buccaneers of old.
Thank you for reading.
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Sources and references:
“I pirati del software.” Futura, n. 19 (maggio-giugno 1985)
“P come Pirata”, Commodore Computer Club 34, September 1986
“Oltre le Edicole”, Commodore Computer Club 37, December 1986
“I Pirati in Italia”, Commodore Gazette 6, September 1987
“Licenza di Clonare”, K, January 1989
Thanks to Flemming Dupont for the pictures of the Armati Cassettes.