The following is an edited excerpt from The Apple II Age: How The Computer Became Personal, by Laine Nooney, and is published with permission.
Robert Tripp was starting out March 1981 with a mea culpa. As the editor and publisher of MICRO: The 6502 Journal, Tripp was in the unenviable position of having to pen an apology for running an ad for the disk copy utility program Locksmith. He started out by insisting on the obvious, that MICRO was “unconditionally opposed to the illegal copying of software listings, cassettes, diskettes or any other protected material.”
He likened the copying of software to the photocopying of a magazine and acknowledged that MICRO would have no livelihood if readers could simply get the content free or at minimal cost. He then went about surveying the “hidden costs” of illegally duplicated software, or “copywrongs,” as he put it, in a fizzled attempt at humor. According to Tripp, software piracy increased costs for consumers, added technical headaches, and, in the very long term, deprived developers of the royalties necessary to sustain themselves and their programming practices. “The only person who benefits from ‘copywrong’ is the thief,” Tripp wrote. “Everyone else loses in the long run.”
Tripp’s editorial was motivated by something that had never happened in the world of microcomputer journalism before: the threat of an advertiser boycott. The software publishers who formed a sizable contingent of Tripp’s advertising base were incensed over the Locksmith ad, which they believed served to enable software piracy. Released by the newly formed Omega Software Systems, an otherwise anonymous publisher with no prior products to its name, Locksmith promised to copy the “uncopyable.” In other words, it allowed users to make duplications of floppy disks that were otherwise locked by the varied copy protection schemes used by publishers as a loss prevention mechanism to thwart piracy.
Understanding why a group of software publishers might threaten to ruin a niche microcomputer hobbyist magazine over another company’s ad requires understanding the tangled net of industrial tensions that emerged between the producers and the consumers of microcomputer software in the early 1980s. As a consumer microcomputing market began to flourish, developers became alert to the risks software piracy posed to their burgeoning industry. If no one paid for software, they worried, who would bother to write it, and how would the industry grow?
Thus began the drama of copy protection, an industrial loss prevention practice wherein companies used a combination of hardware and software techniques to scramble the data on software media formats, typically 5.25-inch floppy disks, so that copying the disk was no longer possible by conventional means. While the goal of this subtle bit of friction was to throttle piracy, it also prevented users from creating backup copies of software they legally owned, or otherwise accessing the code itself.
Copy protection centralizes unique tensions around the status of software in the early 1980s, particularly with regard to its ownership. Was software a good or a service? Did users have a right to access the code itself or only its end result? Was preventing users from making backup copies a form of industrial overreach or even consumer abuse? No computer enthusiast magazine of the period, and no software publisher or consumer, went untouched by the roiling debate over copy protection.
Cover of the May 1981 issue of BYTE, dedicated to software piracy. Image courtesy of The Internet Archive.
There are no definitive answers to such questions, but putting a historical spin on the issue offers a richer query: Why were such questions ever concerns to begin with? As it turns out, the way people used their computers matters a great deal for understanding why copy protection (and copy breaking) became such a fiercely contested issue. Copy protection could interfere with personal computing’s most mundane operations—the quotidian ability to use your software. Taking seriously the claims of those who supported Locksmith, not to enhance piracy operations, but to make their own interactions with software more efficient, secured, or productive, we might consider Locksmith as a historical artifact to productively center the habits and practices (and challenges and frustrations) of what everyday computing looked like at the day of the personal computing era.
Software Piracy at the Dawn of Personal Computing
Understanding why software duplication was such a thorny issue during the early years of the commercial microcomputer software industry requires understanding the status of software copyright in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as setting aside internet-era notions of piracy. Whether our point of entry to a computational world was desktop computers or touchscreen smartphones, computer users of the twenty-first century have become accustomed to a computing environment where access to software is negotiated through proprietary, often cloud-based platforms—app stores by Tencent or Apple, Valve’s PC gaming distribution platform Steam, Google Drive’s Docs or Sheets, or Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Copying such software is difficult if not impossible, given that the software’s code is not physically in our possession.
Personal computers functioned differently in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike domestic computational technologies such as video game consoles or pocket calculators, the Apple II and many of its competitors were not designed as proprietary or closed systems. Indeed, the entire appeal of a personal computer was that it put computing power directly in the hands of users. It was essential that users be able not only to program on their machine but also to save and distribute the work they did. Such dynamics were also essential to building a software market that would compel the purchase of this inordinately expensive hardware. Consequently, flexible storage formats were desirable. Cassettes and floppy disks were relatively inexpensive, relatively durable, and gave users control of data. But that control cut both ways, since it gave users the ability to copy not just their own work but anyone else’s too.
Rationales for engaging in unauthorized duplication were complex. Users, such as their opinions can be documented, shared concerns about the limitations copy protection placed on both the practical usability of their software and the ideological, Hacker Ethic–style concerns related to software ownership and free access of information. Anecdotal and archival evidence indicates that there were explicit piracy rings large and small, often running out of local users groups or even software retailers.
Some users were not keyed in to the software journalism scene well enough to realize that disk duplication broke the law; others insisted no harm was being done as long as they didn’t charge for the copied software or that they could do whatever they pleased with their property. And some pirates ascribed to the notion that software prices were unreasonably high, especially when it was clear that some publishers were already raking in millions.
Cover of the October 1980 issue of Softalk, with a feature story dedicated to the problems created by software piracy. Image courtesy The Internet Archive.
The goal of most copy protection efforts was not to prevent all piracy, which was technologically impossible; as one early computer user put it, “For any copy-protection scheme devised, some bright person somewhere will invent a way to bypass or break the protection.” Instead, the aim was to make copying commercial software challenging enough to dissuade casual duplication, the sort of escalating consumer bogeyman scenario outlined in industry-sympathetic magazines like Softalk:
Starting by making copies for enthusiastic friends, some personal computer users move on to cranking out tens to hundreds of copies that they nonchalantly pass on to their friends’ friends and mere acquaintances. Where scruples draw a line and a halt varies; but few who have gone this far can resist the opportunity to profit from their work, and they begin to offer “their” product for sale.
In the same feature, Softalk journalists extrapolated that if the average Apple owner possessed $100 worth of pirated software and Apple was gaining ten thousand new customers a month, then $1 million was being “siphoned out of the industry monthly.” This was the general party line most publishers, as well as mainstream journalists, took with regard to copy protection, insisting that without ways of preventing unauthorized duplication, “illegitimate copies of programs threaten the fabric of personal computing.”
How Copy Protection Worked
So under the defense of protecting the entire software industry, copy protection flourished in the early 1980s, becoming so widespread and so ingenious in implementation that it could be said to constitute a kind of vernacular industrial programming practice unique to floppy disks. But how did it work?
When, let’s say, an Apple II user wanted to copy a floppy disk, they did so using the copy routine software that came with their Apple II disk drive. Such activities are a world apart from the computer practices we know today, where files backup instantaneously to the cloud and we might shuffle them around with little attention to directory structures or actual save location. In the early days of the microcomputing world, moving data from one diskette to another was a command in the truest sense, a thing you had to tell your computer to do—while your computer, for its part, had to already have the underlying code for those commands loaded into its memory.
Copy routines assumed a standardized data pattern to all Apple II floppy disks, in which data was broken up into a complex but systematized array of sectors and tracks, with lots of specific rules governing how the data was stored. This meant data could only be copied from one floppy disk to another if it followed that pattern.
But what skillful programmers (and anxious publishers) also understood was that you didn’t need to follow the standard data pattern in order for a disk to be used or run—only for it to be copiable. In other words, data could be stored on a disk in any pattern a programmer desired, so long as the instructions for interpreting that unique pattern were also saved to the disk. Thus, through a variety of software techniques, developers and publishers could defy the “rules” of how disks were supposed to work.
Such manipulations were numerous, including everything from placing tracks between other tracks to changing sector data marks to moving the disk directory to laying out the data in a spiral pattern across the surface of the disk. Such bespoke data layouts didn’t create problems when loading or running a disk, but they did make it impossible to duplicate the disk using the Apple II’s copy routine software, because the disk drive’s copying commands presumed the standard data pattern. In other words, nothing in the Apple II could assess if a disk was saved in a nonstandard format. If data were not where they were supposed to be, the copy operation would fail, resulting in either an error message or a disk that appeared to have been successfully duplicated but would not actually work.
By manipulating these kinds of gaps in software logic, publishers of commercial software were able to use copy protection at scale to effectively prevent consumers from making duplications of commercial software. Copy protection could literally follow consumers out of the store and into their homes.
Peace of Mind
Locksmith, and software like it, got around the limitations of copy protection by enabling “BIT by BIT cop[ies] of your disk”—in other words, copying data one bit at a time, regardless of how it was organized on the floppy, rather than assuming a standard data pattern. This distinction in data duplication was what led this entire general category of utilities to be referred to as “bit copiers” or “nibble copiers.”
Importantly, Locksmith did not present itself as a utility to facilitate outright piracy. Rather, Locksmith claimed its functionality rested in the peace of mind it offered users, who would “no longer . . . have to worry about spills, staples, or magnetic fields that destroy [their] valuable diskettes,” so long as they duplicated their disks with the program. Locksmith based its sales pitch (and its $74.95 price point, or roughly $215 in the early 2020s) on the premise that the program would pay for itself in the time and money it saved users from having to wait for replacements or pay extra fees in order to obtain backup copies. Locksmith’s agenda was to offer computer users a tool to regain forms of control over their software that publishers desperately wanted to inhibit.
While publishers weren’t overly inclined to believe in Locksmith’s virtues, they generally underappreciated the very real grievances copy protection produced among consumers. Preventing disk duplication might have stanched piracy, but it also prevented users from making their own backup or archival copies of their software. Creating backup disks was a routine and often necessary practice for floppy disk users, ensuring they had a replacement in case any crucial data on the original disk became damaged. The fragility of floppy disks was significant enough that the Apple II DOS manual dedicated an entire section of its fourth chapter to “protecting yourself against disaster” by “backing up” your diskettes.
Such concerns were hardly hyperbolic. Stories abound of the unusual circumstances floppy disks found themselves in, forming a kind of micro-genre among early computer users. One Softalk reader documented blow-drying a floppy disk after his children spilled water on it, and another recounted having his disk get covered in ice cream after storing it in a kitchen cupboard during a party. One truly remarkable letter detailed a Rube Goldberg-esque set of events that resulted in floppy disks getting covered in suntan lotion and falling out of the back of a moving truck (with a few Q-tips and some rubbing alcohol, everything booted just fine).
Leaving disks on refrigerators, microwaves, or even too close to the computer itself could disrupt their magnetic field, while problems with disk drive alignment or maintenance or even the failure to use a surge protector could result in data overwriting. These kinds of user errors were common: 13 percent of a random sample of malfunctioning disks returned to the company Sir-Tech Software included forms of physical damage such as “peanut butter and jam particles, pencil marks, paperclip impressions, pinholes, and severely creased disks.”
Consumers who suddenly found themselves with a botched commercial disk and no backup had limited options. Publishers were generally amenable to replacing damaged disks, though policies varied. VisiCalc was fairly notorious in the early 1980s for initially charging $30 for a backup disk, along with requiring the warranty card. Customer service personnel at Brøderbund Software were so amused by a returned disk mauled by a dog that they photocopied the disk and circulated the image in their internal newsletter. Yet the process of getting replacements could take weeks or months, in addition to whatever costs the publisher might charge. While such issues might have been merely an inconvenience for users unable to play their favorite game, extended inaccessibility to programs like word processors, spreadsheets, or database managers could wreak havoc for businesses.
No one would win the war over disk duplication, but consumers almost certainly lost. Publishers would not risk their bottom line to make their software more usable. Certainly, disks would still become corrupted, get accidentally used as frisbees and coasters, stored atop computers or refrigerators, creased between books or filing cabinets or desk drawers. Disk drives would still spin out, overclock, eat their own software.
Yet lockout mechanisms would only grow more sophisticated, and publishers would devise endless programmatic curiosities to challenge those who sought to replicate software outside the industry’s oversight. Like all the commercial media industries that had come before, from books to music to film, the personal computing software industry would align in its interest that capital must be captured. In the standoff between publishers and consumers, unauthorized duplication was merely a tactic, a disorganized and uncoordinated effort to serve the software industry a thousand paper cuts from below.
What the software industry would devise, however, was a strategy, top-down. In April 1984, a confederacy of publishers, developers, and other industry actors pooled their financial support to launch the Software Publishers Association (SPA), a trade organization headed by the Washington, DC, attorney Kenneth Wasch, to protect and expand the internal interests of the personal computing software sector. By spring 1985, membership totaled over 120 firms, including Sierra On-Line, Brøderbund, and Activision, as well as the software divisions of traditional media publishing companies such as Bantam, Scholastic, Random House, and Reader’s Digest. Like any trade association, the SPA had aspirations to build its lobbying power, collect industry data, host annual dinners, and deck its membership with awards. But beyond these activities, the SPA’s greatest task was to end piracy.
No longer would software pirates, professional or casual, be chased after by individual publishers playing a relentless game of whack-a-mole. Instead, the SPA built an entire internal division dedicated to chasing piracy leads and set up a $50,000 copyright protection fund dedicated to the implementation of “a realistic, action oriented program to frustrate illegal copying of microcomputer software.” Adversaries included the individuals who copied and resold software for a profit; bulletin board systems that distributed or facilitated the distribution of computer software; user groups, businesses, schools, or universities that used unlicensed copies of software; software rental companies; and firms like Locksmith’s publisher, that “market[ed] software copying devices and programs.”
Endowed with the financial support of the software publishing industry, the SPA’s strategy was surprisingly bespoke. Rather than drag pirates into court or simply refer them to the FBI, SPA leadership preferred to shake down pirates internally first. The SPA became well known for its threatening letters but was also not above hiring private investigators or even conducting its own “raids.” In one instance, Wasch himself posed as a customer at a computer retailer in the New York area that was known for selling copyrighted software off the books, caught the employees in the act, and then worked out a deal with the company owners to not pursue damages in exchange for a $200 donation to the SPA’s copyright protection fund.
In another example, SPA followed the lead on a solo pirate working out of Irvine, California, which turned out to be a thirteen-year-old boy who may or may not have been selling illegally duplicated software. Restitution was made in the form of a handwritten letter: “I’m truly sorry about this. . . . I had no idea what ‘copyright’ meant, or what it is for, or the laws about it. My dad never explained this to me. . . . I realize now what a big mistake I almost made, and I apologize for what I did. I won’t ever do this again.”
What was valuable to the membership was not restitution for lost revenue but the chilling effect such behavior had on piracy. If the world of microcomputing, beginning in the mid-1970s, might once have been perceived as one in which users and developers were aligned in their interests, it took less than a decade for that to clearly no longer be the case. A pirate was a pirate, not a user or customer. By emphasizing unauthorized disk duplication as an indisputably illegal act, no matter the rationale, the software industry effectively cordoned off a part of the user base as bad-faith criminals.
Yet no publishing company or developer ever claimed it went out of business because of piracy. Rather than a fanciful nostalgic tale of anti-hero hackers making information “free,” attention to a history of use reveals other textures of the past: fried disks and overspun drives, heated phone calls between magazine editors, undercover stings, and people worried about their livelihoods, on all sides.
Whatever we may think of these editorial stances, publisher positions, and consumer pleas, it bears remembering that in long-forgotten software like Locksmith, we find a history of computing precisely about how people could use their computers, and a surprisingly human one at that.
The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal by Laine Nooney. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023. All rights reserved.