This is part two of a series. Read the first post here.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a predecessor to the Internet called bulletin board systems (BBSes). Enthusiasts used modems to call other computers that hosted BBSes. Those that knew how to navigate it and who were willing to break the law could download practically any piece of software for free. Here’s how it worked.
The BBS Underworld
Like the Internet, the BBS world had an underbelly. There was a hierarchy of people in the dark corners, a social order that I found fascinating. Imagine trying to figure this stuff out as kid. It was a lot to absorb. I had a friend of mine that was older and smarter who taught me the ropes, and that helped me navigate and make sense of it all.
Using BBSes, software pirates traded commercial, copyrighted software with the copy protection disabled (no DRM). The most popular software category was games, but business software was traded too. The way the system worked was that to get access to pirated files, you had to first upload a pirated file yourself. I remember people explaining that this was necessary because if law enforcement ever showed up, if they first committed a crime in an effort to get you to commit a crime, that was entrapment and a court couldn’t hold you responsible. I felt that probably wasn’t the strongest defense, but that was the norm. The BBSes usually had “fronts” that allowed non-pirate users to trade freeware or shareware that was permitted to be distributed freely.
I was a software pirate. That’s how I got my hands on a lot of software and was able to tinker and learn. I didn’t have a clue what a database or an operating system was, and I learned by installing the stuff. I never ever sold a piece of copyrighted software, I was just obsessed with playing PC video games and seeing what software could do. Perhaps the strongest sign of my addiction was that a vast majority of the software I didn’t use regularly– I would download it, install it, play around with it briefly, and then move to the next one. I know a lot of other venture folks who were software pirates. I was emailing with one of them recently and we both agreed that probably a ton of current VCs were probably calling BBSes before they hit puberty.
I justified piracy to my 14-year-old self by observing that many people “dubbed” or copied audio music tapes, and in those cases, people who were getting the copy probably would have otherwise paid for the tape in a store. It was a real economic loss for the artist, producer, distributor, retails and other people in the supply chain. But almost all of the software I was using I would never have bought for various reasons. It was more like window shopping or a free trial. Whether it was business software I was never going to use in practice, or a game I wouldn’t have spent the money on in the first place, I saw this practice as “less illegal” than dubbing. Some kids drank beer and did drugs. I pirated software. Later in life it was clear to me that “less illegal” was a seriously flawed and irrelevant argument, which rose into relief when I became a commercial software developer. I came to appreciate that what I did when I was a pirate was wrong and unfair to those that created the software.
I am not sure how my career and life would have progressed if I didn’t get curious about and have access to software at that age, I just wished it had been easier to get that experience without breaking copyright law. But in that sense maybe that was an important barrier to entry that prevented a lot of people from going into the field in the first place– because it was complicated and shady, and the alternative legal way was extremely expensive. The good news: today you don’t have to make this trade-off. You can experiment with millions of titles of software on your mobile device– for free– and not have to do shady things or spends tons of money to experience this.
But back to this underworld. Here’s how it all worked: most pirate BBSes also required you to have other users vouch for you and you often had to know a password too. So you’d build relationships and a reputation online, much like social media today. And you’d also rely on people who knew you in real life to vouch for you. But it was a process and required political savvy. Membership to these BBSes was also fragile. If you broke the rules or didn’t supply enough pirated software that the BBS didn’t already have, you’d be booted off. To be successful, you had to be good at getting new titles quickly and then uploading them. Most sites had a points system that if you uploaded a good file (good=new releases), you’d be awarded points which you could spend to download other files. The most successful pirates were essentially market makers, downloading and uploading to various “boards” to maximize profit in the form of points. Some BBSes enforced a post-call-ratio which required you to post messages in the forums every certain number of calls. This was enforced to prevent people from dialing in, checking for new files, and then dropping off. These people were affectionately called “leachers”. I remember having to look at the word up.
While the word “post” in BBSes was borrowed from real-life physical bulletin boards, this is where “post” crossed over to the technology world and why you call a status update in Facebook a “post”.
The Distributors: SysOps
Up the ladder one notch are the system operators (sysops) of the pirate BBSes. To this day, I still love that word– sysop– I don’t know why. Sysops ran BBSes The most prominent pirate BBS in my hometown was Iceman’s Palace. Surprise, a guy named Iceman was the sysop. He was a BBS legend and probably the quiet kid at school. Another one was Etile (elite spelled backwards).
Sysops were distributors. None of these sites charged real money…and there was no convenient way to charge anyway. It would be 10 years before Paypal would be founded. I was a sysop briefly and there was a certain thrill to it. Users would upload new titles to me instead of me having to download. I had an external modem, so lights would blink a certain way depending on what was happening on my BBS. I got so good at this that I could tell almost exactly what a user was doing or what protocol a user was using to transfer a file, simply by looking at a bank of 7 lights. All of this didn’t happen that often. I wasn’t very good at getting users to call my BBS. Perhaps this was my first failed marketing campaign (of many). The thrill and occasional glory, however, didn’t outweigh the headache and the risk. In those days, computers couldn’t multitask, so when someone was on your BBS, you couldn’t use your computer. And when you had a user online, that also meant your phone was busy and so I couldn’t use it to call my friends either.
I also got some threats from users from time to time. Someone I knew in real life used my BBS, and one day he sent me a request to change his user name (to Dan Rather, of all choices). Two days later, “Dan Rather” threatened me and demanded that I let him download a ton of files and if not he was going to call the FBI. I guess this was an early form of cyber bullying? I thought, how could this guy think I was so stupid? Did he think that I would forget who he was for real or be fooled by his alias change? I ignored him and blacklisted him on my BBS and a couple of others, although I admit I was a bit freaked by the incident. I think my BBS was up for only a couple of months and wound up trading almost entirely non-copyrighted software. Anyway, this is as far as I went into this underworld. The rest I just observed.
But of course, from here it gets really interesting. Read part 3.