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. While that might not sound so weird at first, there is another small detail to note: those were unauthorised 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 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, probably only because the EU required all national members to do so, a law that took into consideration 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 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. 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 organised.
Software piracy as a legitimate business operation
Legitimate registered companies began to publish unlicensed software themselves; not distributed anymore in computer shops, but in brick and mortar stores like newspaper kiosks and toy shops. My mother once bought me a “Busta sorpresa”: usually found in newspaper kiosks, these were an hybrid between a blind bag and a “nostalgic lootbox” filled with random unsold knicknacks. Inside one of those generic looking blind bags, I found an unboxed C64 cassette, with no instructions whatsoever, that contained pirated games.
Since the original pre-1993 copyright law didn’t specifically mention software among protected properties, no court of law could issue criminal penalties: 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 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 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 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. 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. 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 piracy on the market. At one point, especially in smaller cities, buying an original game ended up being almost impossible: 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 software piracy was a “minor forgivable offense”. My parents weren’t really the exception to the rule, most people had no idea they were actually buying pirated software. 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 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 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 came to a screeching halt, slowly going back to the retail business model, which was still viable for Amiga.
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; it is surely worth noting that the pirate industry could 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 responsability began and ended with packaging and publishing; the crackers would do all the dirty work while remaining 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 keeping the publisher safe from legal issues.
Mario Arioti (or Armati, as he was known in piracy circles) is a very pivotal figure in the early Italian piracy market, one of the first who managed to create a whole industry in 1977, just outside Bologna, making quite a profit 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 was such that, one of the first software houses in Italy, Simulmondo, initially leaned on the robust distribution of the Armati industry, in order to estabilish a network of legitimate games. Riccardo Arioti, Mario’ son, joined Francesco Carlà – Simulmondo’s founder – by creating the Italvideo company. Not many months after the agreement, Riccardo Arioti left, going on to found the other bolognese software house, 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 onwards, 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 swashbuckling, 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, maskerading 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! 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, 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 an agreement with the original publishers in order to distribute their titles for a fair price on the national territory. 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 products distributed 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 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 organised among the various players, also the ones responsible for the rapid descent into the incredibly confusing pirate market of the late 80s and early 90s.
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 were to destroy any reference 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.
Since there was little-to-no quality control, the crackers would go on about hacking the games’ structure as they saw fit. While it might be fair, truthfully, to argue that many titles that would have never been released on the market, at least, managed to reach an intended public – along with a somewhat sensible Italian translation – unfortunately the end product was 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 names was only the tip of the iceberg of the confusion.
Title screens for the various "episodes" of The Last Ninja.
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. This meant that there was no guaranteen that the game could even be finished, not that it was complete to begin with.
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, while in the cut-up levels the game would just freeze after reaching the end.
By 1988, the 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 found to be even more confused, realizing that it was only level three that was included, not one.
If there was one certainty, it is that at least the unofficial title stuck and was never changed, but no, even that wasn’t the case. Not only every company used different names for the same game, some of them would release different levels of the same game under different titles. It was basically useless to check the titles before buying a compilation in order to avoid buying duplicates or trying to piece together a single game, even if they were by the same company.
Let’s examine some examples of this confusion.
The SIPE-Edigamma naming convention
Sipe and Edigamma’s original mission statement was never to translate the original title, since their only objective was releasing as many games as possible while, naturally, maximing their profits. Most times, the crackers just replaced the title with random words that would fit within the allowed character limit, otherwise it would look corrupted. Sometimes it would look corrupted anyway. 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. 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 pretend to be kind of 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. They used random mishmash of words that barely made sense. Also, naturally, Edigamma didn’t care to coadiuvate 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 money, some of SIPE and Edigamma’s more “luxurious” (hence, expensive) releases were graced with several poorly made loader screens, which were sometimes vaguely inspired by the pirated games themselves, but mostly seemed to be just random images.
Here’s a small gallery for your viewing pleasure.
While the article focuses on the Commodore 64, nationwide piracy hit almost every single home computer that used tapes. The chances of someone bothering to claim copyright on a ZX Spectrum or MSX game were 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 should invest 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 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.
On the bright side, piracy was one of the main factors in home computers being a massive success in Italy and, consequently, the less than impressive sales of consoles, whose games commanded outrageous prices all the way through the 90s. On the not so bright side, piracy was undoubtedly among the contributing factors for the Italian videogame industry not being able to compete on an European level, since capitals to grow and expand were very limited. 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 for very long.
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 want so far as to release the original games, 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 just ended after 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 work by copying each chip on the board by hand and replicate it entirely, 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 with Mortal Kombat.
Several of these boards ended up in 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 would 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: with the introduction of the Euro, prices of technological goods in Italy have dropped by a considerable margin. During the PlayStation era, 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 organised as in the 80s and early 90s. Also, most importantly, didn’t have an aura of legitimacy: no one buying a burned copy of Gran Turismo, 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 bucaneers of old.
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.
Thank you for reading.
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