Everyone had a favorite videogame shop as a kid, where plenty of happy (and maybe not-so-happy) memories took place. Maybe it was EG or a Game, if you’re 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.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so weird at first, but there is another small detail to note: those were unauthorised copies of copyrighted C64 titles. They were being sold as originals. Yes, that was perfectly normal, one could buy pirated games all over Italy and no one even noticed or cared. Hop on the Vespa and get ready for this eventful journey around “il Belpaese” and its dubious relationship with copyrighted software in the 80s and 90s.
Software piracy is, naturally, a problem that has affected the industry since the early days: many articles have been dedicated to copy protection, the Atari vs Coleco suit and the immortal 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 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, probably only because the EU required all national members to do so, a law encompassing all types of copyright protection was passed.
Pirated games in Italy were already being regularly sold since the early eighties, with many apparently “legit” retail shops having a pretty lucrative business on the side, making copies on-the-fly at the customers’ request.
The already cracked games were being sold to the retailers by the “crackers” themselves, commanding pretty high prices for highly requested titles. Some of them managed to get rich pretty quickly, especially because this was a shadow economy with no state control nor taxation.
That was only the beginning: in the mid 80s, in order to meet the market’s ever-growing demand, piracy would grow larger and more organised.
Stills from a special on national television about a computer shop in Palermo and two kids working on "Grideaters"
Listen! Lost Italian sailors in a stormy copyrighted seas sing their song
Legitimate registered companies began to publish and distribute unlicensed software themselves; not sold in computer shops, but in brick and mortar stores like newspaper kiosks and toy shops. My mother once bought me a “Busta sorpresa”: those were an hybrid between a blind bag and a “nostalgic lootbox” filled with random unsold knicknacks, usually found in newspaper kiosks. Inside one of those generic looking blind bags, I found an unboxed C64 cassette, with no instructions whatsoever, that contained, guess what, pirated games.
Since the original pre-1993 copyright law didn’t specifically mention software among protected properties, it wasn’t possible for a court of law to issue criminal penalties, this because Italian penal law dictates that no one can be punished without an ad-hoc norm for the crime. In the civil courts, judicial interpretation of the original copyright law helped the software houses win some of the battles. These hearings though, as per the norm with the Italian court system, took years to come at a sentence and, naturally, required a serious economical interest by the parties involved.
The developer or publisher in question 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 to protect their properties in a confusing market that was already under-developed to begin with. Let’s not forget that, in the late 80s, a game was considered successful if it sold 10.000 copies: the Italian market was even smaller and the stakes lower. Thus, because of the limited profitability, compared to UK and America, along with the legal system being decrepit and impossibly slow to react, the pirates felt safe from harm.
Naturally, lists of software houses that weren’t to be trifled with because of their notorious litigiousness circulated among the “operators”. Italian companies that had an agreement with overseas publishers, among them companies like Miwa Trading with Activision software, 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. The pirates were actually more afraid of the national revenue service than of 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 the pirates on the market. 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 it was a “forgivable offense”.
Along with my parents, I’m pretty sure most people had no idea they were buying pirated software. As a kid I felt that there was indeed something strange going on, like seeing Pac-man called “Pallino” (polka-dot), but, of course, I never fully realized what was 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 unauthorised 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 start 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 came to a screeching halt, slowly going back to the retail business model, which was still viable for Amiga. In the late 90s, the black market sprung back to life thanks to the Playstation, a pretty easy console to mod; the discs were being sold on the streets where kids hang out, like counterfeit Gucci bags or cheap drugs.
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. The companies offered free replacements though; while I don’t think anyone ever bothered taking up on that offer, at least the pirates offered pretty good customer support! By 1986, the counterfeiting industry was so widespread that some of those companies reported selling a million copies of said “repackaged” titles.
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 responsability began and ended with packaging and publishing; the crackers would do all the dirty work and remained solely responsible. 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 boring all legal risks, keeping the publisher safe.
Mario Arioti (or Armati, as he was known in piracy circles) is a very pivotal figure in the Italian piracy market, one of the first to create a whole industry, just outside Bologna, making quite a profit by repackaging cracked games. Armati cassettes only changed the original cover, keeping the original title, everything else was left intact. It was a solid product, sold all over the country ever since 1977; I had a couple of those cassettes as well.
Arioti is also notorious because he was the first to repent on his swashbuckling business, deciding to work, from 1986 onwards, alongside software publishers and publishing legitimate licensed software, even some developed in Italy. Still, in the last interview he gave to a magazine in 1987, he confessed to be 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 swashbuckling, there was one product who stood proudly alone: the cassettes produced in Napoli. They were called napoletane (literally “from Napoli”): an umbrella term which identified a bunch of programmers distributing via agreements with newspaper kiosks and shops, hiding behind various names like Alga Soft, F.S.N. or Penguin Soft.
The crackers would download the software directly via BBS, produced the cassettes and sold them, with no business intermediary; they were so prompt that it was possible to find all of the titles the magazine Zzap! reviewed within a few days. 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 that were 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; personally I never saw them in any of the kiosks in my town of Roma, even though I remember having at least one of them.
SIPE and Edigamma: Blackbeard and Henry Morgan
One based in Milano, the other in Roma, SIPE and Edigamma were among the major players in pirated software sold in shops all over Italy. Their products were worlds apart from Armati and “napoletane” cassettes: theirs was a case of quantity over quality, along with a different business model.
According to SIPE, their compilations came about because it was impossible for Italian companies to find an agreement with the original publishers in order to distribute their titles for a fair price on the national territory. To be fair, they had a point: those few legit C64 games that appeared on the market in 1983/84 were crazy 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 but 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 editorial series under a kaleidoscope of names and formats, even going as far as including gadget like t-shirts and pins. Still, all those different “magazines” were just the same thing over and over: compilations of unlicensed cracked games.
Software piracy as a strategy of confusion: SIPE and Edigamma's business model
SIPE and Edigamma were arguably the more organised among the various players, also the ones responsible for what I have named “the bucaneer confusion“.
They went about publishing pirated games with a Jeff Bezos-worthy business plan: avoid all possible legal risk and keep costs at a minimum. The crackers were given a very specific set of instructions to follow: they had to destroy any reference to the original game. Title, programmer/software house and the plot and characters’ names (especially if licensed from a movie or comic book) were mercilessly deleted.
Since there was little-to-no quality control, the crackers would go on about modifying the games’ structure as they saw fit. It might be fair to say that many titles that would have never been released on the market, at least, managed to reach some gamers, with an italian translation to boot. Unfortunately, one couldn’t really count on those homemade translations to make any sense, since, again, were based on made-up stories and characters. Still, changing names was only the tip of the iceberg of the confusion.
Those compilations rapidly became bottom of the barrel junk: they contained dozens of simple titles that guaranteed the player to play “a version” of the pirated title, not even that it could be finished or completed. When C64 games started becoming slightly more complex, with multi loads or requiring more than one cassette, SIPE and Edigamma told 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 and the game would just freeze after a certain point.
The title screens for Ninja, Ninja 2 (due) and Ninja 5 (cinque)
By 1988, the business 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: SIPE, Edigamma and several others didn’t 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, many times I found myself even more confused, not realizing I had never played level one, but only level three.
Dear reader, you might be thinking, “at least the unofficial title stuck and was never changed”, well that would also be wrong. Not only every company used different names for the same game, some of them would also release different levels of the same game under different titles. It was basically useless to check the titles before buying a compilation to avoid buying duplicates, even if they were by the same company.
Now, let us try to shed some light on the confusion.
SIPE-Edigamma naming convention
Sipe and Edigamma’s original mission statement was never to translate the original title, always remember their first creed: they didn’t care. Most times, the crackers just replaced it with something that would fit within the allowed character limit, otherwise it would look corrupted. Again, not that they cared.
The companies also had a pretty nasty habit of switching the original titles around, reaching such heightened levels of confusion as the unauthorised Italian horror movie sequels of the 80s: La Casa 3, Zombi 3, Zombi 5, Non Aprite Quella Porta 3 (the unofficial Italian sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). For example, the pirated “Samurai Warriors” wasn’t really a version of Samurai Warrior: the battles of Usagi Yojimbo, that would make too much sense: it was Way of the Exploding fist. Actually, the Usagi Yojimbo game came out under four different names for various companies: Karma, Harakiri, Kendo San (?), Samu Ray. Well, at least they were all kind of inspired by the game and not entirely made up.
The Bruce Lee game? Come on, that’s an easy one: Banzai, China Chen (THAT’S RACIST!), Karate and Karate box [sic]. What about a classic title, like Rainbow Arts’ Turrican? It came out as Frexxan (huh?), Go and Job. Was it a Bible based 2D shooter? Naturally, Edigamma didn’t care to coadiuvate the player in identifying a sequel, hence Turrican 2 was renamed Jehl.
Boulder Dash was gifted a wondrous ten different names. Rockman (Rockford would have made too much sense), Space Roc [sic], Vanga Man, Pedro, Jump in, Diamonds, Escavator, Firefly, Rolling Stones and Zep. They could have stuck Queen in there too, at least one band for decade.
Finally, Creatures and its sequel came out under a random assortment of nonsensical words: Bongers, Fantasy, Gun Machine (?), Helf, Help Beards and Morxe. The best for last: some of SIPE and Edigamma’s more luxurious releases were graced with poorly made loader screens vaguely inspired by the pirated games themselves.
Here’s a small gallery for your viewing pleasure.
While I only mentioned the Commodore 64, make no mistake about it: nationwide piracy hit every single home computer that used tapes. The chances of someone bothering to claim copyright on a Spectrum/MSX game were also pretty slim, hence the Commodore 64 compilations usually contained games for other home computers as well.
Italian magazines of the time went as far as calling it a “third world situation” and they were pretty much right.
National software development was basically non existent in the early eighties and beyond: almost no one wanted to produce and distribute legal titles. Why should one risk a hefty amount of capital to produce a title from a relatively unknown local programmer, when a compilation of pirated software was a safe bet with no serious legal risks involved? This also meant that should one wanted to buy an original game, chances were that, unless it was a very famous title (like a Lucasarts adventure), one had to resort to piracy or to expensive imports.
On the bright side, piracy was one of the main factors in home computers being a massive success in Italy and, consequently, the disappointing sales of consoles, whose games commanded outrageous prices all the way through the 90s. On the not so bright side, piracy shot massive cannon balls to Italy’s own software houses for years: capitals for them to grow and expand were very much limited. It is no wonder then that, beside a few names like Milestone and Artematica, Italian software houses were never competitive on a European level.
Some of Artematica (top) and Milestone (bottom) most famous titles
If there is one thing to be learned from history is its tendency to repeat itself, but this is fortunately not the case: with the introduction of the Euro, prices of technological goods in Italy have dropped by a considerable margin. Nowadays there is very little point in pirating games, even in Italy. Even so, the damages done by the full-on decade of rampant piracy are not easily repaired, its impact is still felt today.
Here’s hoping that the country can learn from past mistakes and finally move on, 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 played the staggering amount of C64 games I did as a child, so, in a way, I have to thank both Sipe and Edigamma. They surely 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.
Thank ye, you glorious bucaneers.
May your legend forever sail on (and never come back).
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
Many thanks to Flemming Dupont for the pictures of the Armati Cassettes.