1) Thar be Pirates

1982

When you’re 18 and in college a 15 year old seems like such a little kid. It was hard to take him seriously when he walked up to us in the mall video arcade. “Have you tried E.D.D?” he asked. He had overheard us talking about trying to copy a new game my friend Mike had just purchased. We had tried Copy II+ and Locksmith but no joy. We had even been to several BBSs and news stands looking for game specific copy parameters for either program.

“What’s EDD?” I asked a bit condescendingly. Mike and I weren’t exactly novices. He got his first Apple ][ in 1979. It was the original model with integer basic and a cassette drive. Within a few months he’d splurged on a floppy drive and language card. I got my Apple ][+ in 1980. Technically it was my dad’s and for business but my job was to make the computer useful. I had hacked in a separate board into the plus so it would display both upper and lower case characters. Even used it to drive a letter quality daisy wheel printer. For out in the ‘burbs of 1982 Houston, Mike and I were the shit.

“It’s the Essential Data Duplicator but everyone calls it EDD.” I looked at the kid a bit puzzled while Mike continued playing Defender. Nobody we knew had even heard of a nibble copier. Most magazines had long since stopped printing ads for them. Yet here’s this little kid saying “everybody” calls it EDD.

“Could I get a copy from you?” I asked still half thinking he was making it up. Without hesitation he said, “Sure. And if you’re interested I have some guys coming over Saturday morning. We’re going to be swapping disks. Bring what you’ve got and maybe we can trade.” I told him I’d come and he gave me his address. Sure they were just kids, but at least they knew something about computers.

Come Saturday morning Mike and I packed my Apple II, drive, monitor and our combined couple of dozen interesting disks into the car. On the off chance the kid had anything interesting, we even scrounged 5 blank disks from my dad. At $5 a blank that got us a serious lecture about wasting money. Then a second about the dangers of carrying a very expensive computer off to meet strangers. Mike and I smiled at the thought of sinister teen geeks. The address turned out to be a small townhouse off West Belt near I-10. It was in a long line of connected brick townhouses with nothing distinctive about it. Nothing except it was flying the Jolly Roger.

It took both of us to carry all the gear to the door. A guy in his early thirties answered our knock. He saw the computer and said, “Come on in! I’m not sure where you’re going to be able to put that. Just have a look around. There should be plenty of plugs but we’re running out of tables. He didn’t notice that I had no idea what he was talking about.

Obviously we were a little late. There were people and computers everywhere. Four Apples on the dining table, three on the kitchen counters, three more on the coffee table. The end table lamp was on the floor and another computer was there. There was not a single horizontal space left. Another guy saw are dilemma and pointed us to the bedrooms but those were full too. With arms aching I put the computer down on a recliner. Another guy looked over and said, “There should be a plug behind the chair. Just unplug the lamp.” So that is where the computer stayed.

Mike and I wandered the townhouse in awe. There were people from 15 to 50. It was like a cocktail party but with no women, just guys and Apples. Geeks though they were, no one was anti-social. Everyone mingled swapping stories over an omnipresent din of floppy drives.

In the chaos it took almost a half-hour to find the kid who invited us. True to his word he brought over his EDD disk. Then said, “You only brought one disk drive? It’s going to take a lot longer to copy stuff that way.” I mumbled a little thinking, crap the first drive was $600! But he was right. Everyone had at least two drives. Still in shock I asked him the 80’s equivalent of WTF! He said it was just a group he didn’t know who started it but they meet once a month anywhere someone will volunteer their house. This month was his turn to host.

I asked him how one went about trading software. He looked at me like total noob but he smiled anyway. “See those lists.” he said pointing to 8 foot tall listings of fan-folded paper hanging ceiling to floor behind most of the computers. “Just look down the list, find the disk number, go to the box and take the disk. Then copy it and put it back.”

That was when I noticed the boxes. Big plastic shoe boxes from Target. Not the little desktop floppy boxes I was used to. Each person seemed to have two or three of these shoe boxes each with a hundred fifty or more floppies. The blank disks alone were worth more than the computers. But none were blank. They contained literally everything ever published for the Apple II.

I heard a guy looking down a list ask, “What’s VersaForm? I don’t have that.” The lists owner responded, “It’s a business thing. Never bothered to boot it though. If you have any trouble let me know.” In polite response he said, “I’ll copy it and make sure it works. Who knows, someone might need it.” Then off he went with the disk.

It was an odd exchange to witness the first time. The second time I simply smiled at the deja vu. Hearing the theme for a third time I noticed myself thinking, “Maybe I should copy PIE Writer just-in-case Dad wants to make a chart.”

Needless to say, it didn’t take long to fill our 5 blank disks. To our embarrassment we had nothing unique to return. Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. Ironically once our disks were full we kept finding things we wanted even more. So we immediately started abandoning our pirate booty to copy over it with even better treasures.

“So how was it?” I remember my Dad asking about the meeting. It was the same question he asked when I got off my first roller coaster ride. The answer was the same. “It was like uh… and then… oh my god and then you wouldn’t believe… and up again… can’t explain… gonna go again!” Both events seemed an identical whirling visceral blur.

“It’s Piracy!” I hear you saying. “You’re glorifying piracy! Piracy is bad! Piracy is stealing! Piracy is killing the ___ industry!”

Yes, trust me. I know the morality tail.

This however, is my reality tail. Wherein piracy is much like a stained glass window. To really appreciate its story you have to see it from the inside.

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5 comments.

  1. […] It was an odd exchange to witness the first time. The second time I simply smiled at the deja vu. Hearing the theme for a third time I noticed myself thinking, “Maybe I should copy PIE Writer just-in-case Dad wants to make a chart.” – A Macintosh will NOT give you AIDS, scientists say […]

  2. I remember these days! I was doing this on a Commodore 64, but what memories! I think I still have some of that stuff around here somewhere…

  3. Awesome! Set it up and start a geek historical room at the inn!

  4. What a fascinating genesis, Bob. I would have loved something similar. Alas, I didn’t touch my first C64 until ’94-’95, followed by the Amiga keyboard that has the drive in the keyboard itself.

    Man, was I behind the curve.

  5. I remember doing something very similar with my Atari 400 after my nan paid for the very expensive floppy drive unit for me. I loved that computer and devoured the book “De Re Atari” which was the bible of the Atari 400/800 architecture so I got to know all aspects of it inside out.

    The floppy drive was expensive but technically very simple internally, so the only possible disk copy protection scheme anyone could implement was to check for specific (intentionally) bad disk sectors, as the Atari diskdup program would abort as soon as it hit a bad sector so they assumed people wouldn’t be able to copy disks with bad sectors at home. I’d soon figured out how to wire a button to my floppy drive that would simply short out two wires going to the drive head, so when pushed at the right time would cause any sectors currently being written to be written badly. I’d also written a small program that would attempt to write to the same specified sector over and over until it couldn’t read it back, so it was now simple for me to cause a specific sector to be marked as bad. I’d also written another small program that would scan an entire floppy and print out the addresses of any bad sectors it found. so now I could easily duplicate even copy-protected disks.

    In the town about 50 miles away from my home town was a software store that had a great selection of floppy-based Atari software on the shelf that they would let you try on their computers before you buy. Kids would often sit and play there for hours. They also sold blank floppies. I did buy something if I could afford it, but most of their software was completely unaffordable to me. Their computer area happened to be mostly out of line of sight from the cash register (where the staff would normally stay) so it was a simple job to grab a disk from the shelf then duplicate it onto one of their blank floppies (bought from them), then run my little scanner program on the original floppy to discover and not which sectors if any were marked bad, to be recreated later at home.

    I was very naive at the time, I really thought I was just being clever rather than doing anything actually illegal. I certainly didn’t believe I was stealing, as I wasn’t physically removing anythingfrom them, in fact I reasoned I was giving them business as I was buying my blank floppies from them. I think the staff must have been clueless or worse though, as I seem to remember a couple of times they did wander into the area as I was copying or scanning a disk yet they never said anything. I think they were just happy that I was buying the blank floppies from them too.

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