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Original gangster

Did I ever tell you that I used to run an online piracy service?

It was 1983. On anyone’s technology timeline, that’s not the Information Age. It’s the Stone Age.

Still, I was online and breaking the law every day. I was a regular digital gangster — at the tender age of 14.

I had this bulky, beige computer in my bedroom, Atari Corporation’s late, great model 800. It ran at a mere 1.7 megahertz — hundreds of times slower than today’s PCs — and sold for $1200 at Sears. I bought it with my bar mitzvah money.

I didn’t mind spending all my cash, because I knew I could get the software for free. I had joined the Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts. Or, as we preferred to call our club, MACE — like the stuff you spray on would-be thieves.

On the surface, MACE was totally legit. We paid dues, had membership cards, even published a newsletter. It was perfect.

We met once a month in a dusty room at the Southfield Civic Center. Each MACE meeting followed a set agenda. Perhaps there was a tutorial on BASIC programming, or a speech from a visiting Atari rep.

These things were entertaining, even educational. But the real reason most of us showed up was to trade pirated games.

The Atari was great for games. Sure, you could balance your checkbook with an Atari 800. But in its day, no other computer could touch the Atari when it came to blasting aliens or slaying dragons.

I’ll never forget the time the MACE folks demonstrated Atari’s stunning new “Defender” shoot-’em-up. It looked exactly like the arcade version I’d been playing at the mall. Later, someone named Rick offered me a bootleg copy.

One day, the president of MACE announced that the club would be offering an online service. It wasn’t going to be a Web site; the Web didn’t exist yet. No, MACE was launching a Bulletin Board Service, or BBS. These early online services were strictly dial-up — you connected your computer to a telephone line and waited for people to call.

I wanted to run a BBS too. Somehow, I persuaded my mother to buy me a modem (another $600) and my own telephone line. A few weeks later, “The Studio” was born.

The Studio was important for two reasons. It was perhaps the world’s first online destination devoted to music content. I was learning to play guitar at the time, so I used that fact to give the service personality.

Of course, this was long before MP3s. Still, I posted lyrics and other music tidbits. There was even a discussion section (“The Mixing Board”) where people posted messages about their favorite rock bands (a typical thread: “Who’s better: Led Zeppelin or Judas Priest?”).

But behind the scenes, The Studio was also a pirate board. I built a secret password area that only my MACE friends could access. If you knew the code, you could find dozens of games. For free.

I thought I was being sneaky and original. But my wife tells me now that piracy has been going on for centuries. During the Renaissance, enterprising literary types would sneak notepads into playhouses. They would scribble down what they could, fill in the rest later and sell copies. In fact, there’s a pirated version of Hamlet (known as the Bad Quarto) that’s still studied to this day. Its defects are pretty amusing (“To be or not to be, aye … there’s the point!”).

Back at The Studio, one of my regulars was a guy named Terry. He seemed like an honorable pirate. For every game he downloaded, he uploaded a new one in return.

One day, The Studio’s telephone rang. For some reason, I didn’t let the computer answer. Instead, I picked up the phone and said hello.

It was Terry. He was surprised to hear my voice, but we quickly struck up a friendly conversation. He told me about his enormous collection of pirated games. I told him all about my big plans for The Studio. I was going to rewrite The Studio’s software — add multiple message forums, even a news section. He was enthralled.

After that, I didn’t hear from Terry for months. But later that summer, a new BBS appeared on the scene. It belonged to Terry. He called it Swan Song — named after Led Zeppelin’s record label. It had all the features I had described — the message forums, the news section, everything. Terry had ripped me off completely.

Eventually, I grew tired of the BBS scene and shut The Studio down. Occasionally, people would call looking for it. I gave them Terry’s number and told them to ask him what happened.

Today, I’m not ashamed of what I did. But Terry — wherever he is — should be. There’s a difference between giving away copies and passing off someone else’s work as your own. To copy or not to copy? That is the question.

But ripping someone off? That’s just plain cheating.

Adam Druckman writes about technology for the Metro Times. E-mail