DRM vs Piracy: An expanded timeline

As SimCity burns, CVG looks back at a 40-year arms race between modders and manufacturers

The two week firework display of explosive SimCity problems has given gamers the chance to stop and stare at the spectacle of DRM failing spectacularly.

EA is faced with the unenviable reputation for relying on one of the most hated anti-piracy methods ever, as a groundswell of players complain of connectivity issues, deleted data and numerous related bugs.

But taking a wider view, the whole episode is just one moment in an ongoing arms race between pirates and publishers. In the timeline below, CVG looks through the numerous various forms of copy protection (and circumvention) employed over the years - the good, the bad, the successful, the failed, the annoying, the over-complicated and the unintentionally funny.


3 February 1976

Bill Gates writes 'An Open Letter To Hobbyists', widely considered as the first notable public criticism of software piracy, in response to the mass copying of his Altair BASIC software. "As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software," he states. "Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to be shared. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?"


Spring 1980

Noting that the first versions of his Word Craft word processor software were subject to mass copying, author Pete Dowson and his colleague Mike Lake release a version for the Commodore PET computer that comes with a copy protection dongle, designed by electronics expert Graham Heggie.

The dongle is attached to PET's cassette port and thus the software won't run without it, ensuring that copies can't be made.

While successful, the results were not as drastic as Dowson hoped. Rather than the six-fold increase in sales he'd expected from the lack of copies, he would instead only notice a doubling of sales over a six-month period. The prohibitive cost of making a dongle means it was not a popular form of copy protection.

Winter 1982

The Commodore 1541 floppy disk drive is released, and with it a unique method of copy protection. Developers would place a deliberate error on the disk, one that couldn't be copied.

The unexpected side-effect, however, is that the error would knock the disk reader head out of alignment over time. Many legitimate customers complained of broken drives.

Worse still, hackers found a way to circumvent the copy protection and released copies of the disk that didn't include the DRM, which tempted even legitimate customers who didn't want their systems to break.

June 1984

Jet Set Willy is released on the ZX Spectrum. The cassette is bundled with a card with 180 different codes on it, each made up of four colours. Upon loading the game, the player is asked to enter one of the codes or else the game won't start. Although it's easy to copy a cassette, a copy of the card would also be needed too and home colour photocopying (especially at such small detail) was not common at the time.


Months later, however, UK computer magazine Your Computer prints a letter from a reader expressing displeasure at this form of copy protection, along with full instructions on how to enter a POKE code to bypass it.

This physical form of copy protection would become prevalent in the years to follow, with most games instead asking the player to enter a specific word found in the game's (often sizeable) manual - page 38, paragraph 2, line 3, word 5, for example. Many high-profile games (including Populous, X-Com: UFO Defense and Railroad Tycoon) would use this method to deter pirates.

Summer 1985

Developed by Interplay and published by Electronic Arts, The Bard's Tale is released. Its instruction manual contains four-letter magic words that have to be typed into the game in order to progress.

Winter 1985

A port of popular BBC Micro game Elite is released on the ZX Spectrum, bundled with a unique physical DRM device called a Lenslok.


A Lenslok is a small plastic case containing a set of prisms. When Elite boots up, a code is displayed on screen but the letters are scrambled. By holding the Lenslok up to the screen, the prisms bend the light and show the letters as they are supposed to look, enabling the player to type in the code and load the game.

Legitimate customers were generally irritated by the Lenslok, and not only for the hassle. Its strict size meant that it didn't always work on a very small or large TV. Despite this, another eleven games would go on to use the Lenslok system.

18 October 1985

Nintendo releases the Nintendo Entertainment System in the US. The NES contains the 10NES lock-out system, Nintendo's first attempt at anti-piracy protection.

The system consists of two parts, a microchip in the console and a microchip in the cartridge. If the cartridge doesn't provide the right authentication code to the system, the game will reset continually. Crucially, Nintendo copyrights and patents the source code, meaning nobody can make unauthorised authentication chips.

The 10NES system would be successful for a while, but by the end of the console's life, some companies found workarounds allowing them to release unauthorised NES games, including special cartridges with an extra slot that players would have to plug an authorised game into to bypass the authentication check.

Image credit: SalvagedCircuitry.com

15 August 1986

Electronic Arts' PC game Starflight is one of the first titles to use a code wheel for verification. Before launching their spaceship, players have to use the code wheel to match up two code words, then look up a third code word to get a value that they must then type in. If they enter the wrong code twice they'll be allowed to launch but are quickly intercepted by space police who give the player one more chance before blowing them up.


Code wheels would become a common form of copy protection in the late 1980s and early 1990s because they would be tricky to photocopy (especially as colour ones became the norm) and listing every possible combination would be time-consuming for hackers.

5 July 1987

Sierra's adults-only game Leisure Suit Larry In The Land Of The Lounge Lizards features an interesting alternative to copy protection - age protection. In order to ensure players were over 18, they are asked random trivia questions that only an adult would know.

Do you know what song Clint Eastwood sang in the movie Paint Your Wagon? If not, no Larry.


Autumn 1987

Continuing its tradition of unique copy protection methods, Sierra's Police Quest requires players to quote a specific violation code every time they arrest someone in the game. All the violation codes can only be found in the manual, however.

To prevent pirates who would photocopy the list of codes, Sierra added a second layer of protection. The lead character's locker combination is the score of a recent football game; one that can only be found by looking at the fake newspaper also included with the game.

October 1988

LucasArts' Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders is one of the few games that not only features copy protection but also specifically disparages those who attempt to pirate it.

Every time Zak travels between countries the player has to enter a Visa code, which can be found in the manual. If players get the code wrong, their character is sent to "pirate jail" and given a lengthy lecture.

Summer 1989

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure sells players a dummy by making them think they've bypassed the copy protection. At one point in the game Marcus asks Indy to translate some symbols for him, which the player has to look up in the manual.

If they fail to do so, the game continues as normal, making would-be pirates think they've just been incredibly lucky. That is, until Indy reaches Donovan's place and tries to translate a tablet on the Holy Grail but translates it as the "Holy Grain" instead. A dismayed Donovan then calls Indy "an illegitimate copy of the man I thought you were" and chucks him out, ending the game.


July 1989

The movie tie-in of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier provides a form of copy protection that some considered entertaining and potentially useful.

A Klingon phrasebook is provided with the game, and when starting the player is given a Klingon word to translate. In theory, this means a proper Trekkie nerd who already knows Klingon can get past the protection and play the game without the manual.

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