Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Teenage pirates and the junior underworld: Parents should know that children can buy or sell illegal copies of video games - and 'Sex', writes Justin Keery

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST print-run of 100,000 copies of Madonna's Sex has sold out. A further 120,000 will be printed before Christmas, and bookshops have ordered every last one. But parents beware: around 5,000 school children have their own copy, and the number is growing rapidly as floppy disks are circulated in playgrounds.

Viewing the disk edition on a computer reveals television-quality images from the book - the text, it seems, is deemed superfluous. In disk form the pictures can be copied and traded for video games, credibility or hard cash in a thriving underground marketplace. By the end of the year, any schoolboy with a computer who wants Sex will get it. The unlucky will catch a sexually transmitted disease in the process - the Disaster Master virus, found on the Independent's copy.

Sex is a special-interest area in the thriving junior underworld of software trading. Circulation of Madonna's pictures among minors with neither the budget nor the facial hair to buy Sex gives Madonna's publishers little cause to fear loss of sales. Neither Secker & Warburg in London nor Time-Warner in New York knew of the unofficial digital edition. But the publishers of computer video games have much to lose from playground transactions.

Sex is not doing a roaring trade, said one schoolboy trader. Video games, with price-tags of up to pounds 40, are what every child wants but few can afford. But who needs to buy, when your classmates will trade copies of the latest titles for another game, a glimpse of Madonna or a humble pound coin?

Games disks are usually uncopyable. Skilled programmers 'crack' the protection, as an intellectual challenge and a way of gaining respect in an exclusive scene, add 'training' options such as extra lives, and post this version on a computer bulletin board - a computer system attached to a telephone line where people log in to trade their 'wares'.

Most bulletin boards (BBSs) are friendly places where computer freaks exchange tips, messages and 'public domain' programs, made available by their authors free of charge. But illegitimate operators, or SysOps, look down on 'lame' legal boards, and 'nuke' any public domain material submitted to their systems.

The larger pirate boards are the headquarters of a cracking group - often in a 15-year-old's bedroom. There are perhaps 100 in Britain. Cracked games and 'demos' publicise phone numbers, and a warning is issued that copyright software should not be posted - a disclaimer of questionable legality. New members are asked if they represent law enforcement agencies. According to a warning message on one board, at least one BBS in the United States is operated by the FBI.

Your account at a board may not allow you to download until you upload wares of sufficient quality. Games are considered old after a week, so sexy images, 'demos' or lists of use to hackers are an alternative trading commodity. Available this week, as well as Madonna, are: 'lamer's guide to hacking PBXs', 'Tex' and 'Grapevine' - disk magazines for pirates; and demos - displays of graphical and sound programming prowess accompanied by bragging messages, verbal assaults on rival factions and advertisements for BBSs. According to a former police officer, the recipes for LSD and high explosives have circulated in the past.

The board's 'download ratio' determines how many disks are traded for every contribution - usually two megabytes are returned for every megabyte contributed. 'Leech accounts' (unlimited access with no quotas) are there for those foolish enough to spend between pounds 1 and pounds 60 per month. But children can sign on using a pseudonym, upload a 'fake' - garbage data to increase their credit - then 'leech' as much as possible before they get 'nuked' from the user list.

The 'modem trader' is a nocturnal trawler of BBSs, downloading wares, then uploading to other boards. Current modem technology allows users to transfer the contents of a disk in 10 minutes. A 'card supplier' can provide a stolen US or European phone credit card number. The scene knows no language barriers or border checks, and international cross-fertilisation adds diversity to the software in circulation.

Through the unsociable insomniac trader, or the wealthier 'lamer' with a paid-up 'leech account', games reach the playground. The traders and leeches gain extra pocket money by selling the disks for as little as pounds 1, and from there the trade begins.

Some market-traders have realised the profit potential, obtaining cracked software through leech accounts and selling the disks on stalls. Sold at a pocket-money price of pounds 1 per disk, many games reach schools. The trading of copyright software is illegal but the perpetrators stand little chance of getting caught and are unlikely to be prosecuted.

The victims, software houses, suffer real damage. Sales of Commodore Amiga computers equal the dedicated games machines - the Sega Megadrive or Nintendo, yet sales of Amiga games (on disk and therefore pirate fodder) often reach only one third of the volume of their copy-proof console cartridge counterparts. Despite his preference for Amiga technology, Phil Thornton of System 3 Software is 'seriously reconsidering' future development of Amiga games. Myth, a two-year project, sold pitiful amounts. Mr Thornton was called by a pirate the day it was released - the game was available on a bulletin board. Because of piracy, the sequel to the successful Putty will be mastered instead for the Nintendo console.

This tactic may not help for long. The cracked Amiga release of Putty carried an advertisement (added by pirates) for a Nintendo cartridge 'backup' device. Transferred to disk, a 'pirate-proof' console game can be traded like any other. Games for the Nintendo and Sega systems are available on most bulletin boards.

Scotland Yard only takes an interest in bulletin boards bearing pornography, though most also carry pirate software. Funded by the software industry, the Federation Against Software Theft has successfully prosecuted only one board, with 'more pending'.

This Christmas parents will buy hundreds of thousands of video games. Some children will ask for modems; thus games will be on the bulletin boards by Boxing Day, and the first day of term will see the heaviest trading of the year.

I considered using a pseudonym for this article. Two years ago, a Newsweek reporter exposed the North American bulletin board network. His credit rating, social security and bank files were altered in a campaign of intimidation which included death threats. Most of those responsible were 15-year-olds.