A story today about the possibility that a prominent California Republican was once a co-founder of the Commodore 64 warez group Fairlight caused an uproar on Slashdot today.
Reading it brought back some memories.
During the time in question, I was an avid C-64 fan myself. I had a modem and a list of BBSs I called on a regular basis. There was a guy who went by the name of Chris Snyder who claimed to be a member of Fairlight and made a very big deal about it. Of course, members of these pirate groups didn’t use their real names (it made it too easy to bust them), so I doubt this Chris Snyder character was what he claimed to be. But that was my introduction to the group.
I was acquainted with a number of members of pirate groups at the time. Generally I initially knew them by handles, and in some cases we were on a first-name basis, but I don’t think I ever knew any last names. We’d talk about programming in 6502 assembly language, and they’d share some war stories. I found their world fascinating, but I didn’t have any interest in being part of it.
For those who are unfamiliar with how the C-64 worked, software publishers went to great lengths to keep people from copying games and sharing them with others. The C-64’s disk drive was actually a computer in and of itself, with its own CPU, RAM, and operating system. This sophistication allowed some rather complex and elaborate copy prevention schemes. So-called “warez” groups emerged, breaking these protection schemes to allow the games to be copied freely and easily, and since this was usually a non-trivial task, the groups would tag the now cracked game with an introduction, which was usually a graphics and sound demo with scrolling credits, greetings to people they liked, flames to people they didn’t, and then they would release the game to bulletin boards, where others would in turn download them and upload them elsewhere, and slowly the release would make its way around the world.
It rarely stopped just with breaking the copy prevention schemes on games. Since people who didn’t want to pay for software didn’t want to pay to make the long-distance calls required to distribute them, most of the members of these groups were phone phreakers–people who would trick the phone system into letting them make long-distance calls for free. And that often led to credit card fraud. Lots of stories circulated about the consequences of this behavior. I heard stories of people getting slapped with four-figure phone bills for the calls they made, and turning to selling drugs (or at least being approached to do so) in order to make the money to pay the bills back. I heard other stories about the FBI coming in, seizing computers, pressing charges, and the result was a stint in a juvenile correction facility.
Suffice it to say, these weren’t the best people for a 15-year-old with ambitions to be hanging out with or linked to, so I did my best to try to keep a safe distance from these people. We’d talk programming over e-mail and sometimes over the phone. Looking back, talking on the phone with these guys wasn’t necessarily the best idea I ever had, but it didn’t exactly last very long. I soon made a number of more upstanding friends.
I remember taking a phone call sometime in 1991 or 1992 from someone I now only know as Iron Doctor. I’m sure I once knew his first name, but I don’t remember anymore. He’d been in and out of legal trouble and we’d fallen out of contact. I don’t remember much about the conversation anymore, and the only reason I can place the year was because he asked me what CD I was listening to, and I said I was listening to Nirvana. “Yeah, we like Nirvana up here too,” he said. There’d been a time when we could talk for hours on end, but I don’t remember that last conversation being very long. It was clear we’d gone different directions. I had an Amiga, and while I hadn’t totally given up on programming, I was starting to get the idea I’d end up doing something other than that for a living.
Some of the people involved in the warez scene outgrew it. The way one guy put it, when we were both 16 or 17, was pretty simple. “I don’t understand why someone would risk prison to pirate ‘Grover’s Magic Numbers,'” I remember him saying to me. I don’t know if he’d ever been involved in cracking software to distribute, or if he was just a demo programmer. But we ran into each other in college. We only ever had one class together, but we crossed paths a few times as undergraduates, and by 1998 we were working in the same building. Occasionally I’d walk down the hall and ask him a Unix question.
I never spoke with anyone in Fairlight, so I can’t comment at all on whether the California politician is the infamous Strider because I have no idea. But the story breaking sure brought back a lot of memories.
It makes me wish my old Commodore 128 still worked. I’d love to fire it up for old time’s sake, and maybe even see if I can remember how to program a raster bar.