The FBI’s Atari files

Did you know Atari was investigated by the FBI over a scheme in which they imported Japanese DRAM chips to the U.S. from their plant in Taiwan and resold the chips at greatly inflated prices?

Neither did I, until tonight, when I stumbled across an awesome website called AtariLeaks.

The author, Josh McCormick, sent a FOIA (Freedom of Information) request to the FBI for case files related to Atari from 1970-1990.

McCormick argues that Atari had a lot to lose by pursuing this scheme. Had it become public, Atari could have outraged everyone from the Japanese government to other U.S. manufacturers to shareholders.

He has posted a wonderful summary of the story, a timeline of events, and links to download the relevant documents he received from the FBI.

Go check it out. There’s enough great material to keep you busy for a long time.

‘Neochrome’ and the author of FoReM ST

While the DRAM story is probably of greater interest to most folks, I was fascinated to read through FBI Case 87A-SF-40134, an investigation of the unauthorized release of Neochrome 0.9.

It kicks off like this:

For some time Atari Corporation has been aware that their copyrighted game software has been appearing for sale and trade on computer bulletin boards across the nation. “Neocrome 09” (sic) is one of their latest video games still under development and not yet released to the public for sale and distribution.

(I should mention something that several interviewees point out later in the file: Neochrome “is a ‘GRAPHICS DRAWING PROGRAM’ not a game.” Despite the tip, the FBI refers to it as a game throughout. Oh well. Atari never could get people to stop thinking of it as just a games company.)

Anyway, apparently an anonymous caller told Atari that the sysop of “FoReM ST BBS” in Maryland had obtained a copy of Neochrome 0.9, and uploaded it to CompuServe. Atari asked the FBI to look into it.

This case caught my eye for a few reasons:

  • Flash BBS, my favorite Atari board in St. Louis, ran on FoReM ST BBS software

As Wikipedia notes, I always thought of NeoChrome as more or less public domain software. It was included with practically every Atari computer ever sold. But obviously software companies were always trying to stymy piracy, and it’s understandable Atari would be upset that pre-release software somehow made it onto CompuServe.

“FoReM ST BBS” was a bulletin board in Maryland run by Commnet Systems. This one-man software company produced the terminal program “ST-Term” as well as the aforementioned “FoReM ST” BBS software used by many Atari BBSes across the country over the years.

The sysop told the FBI interviewer that the file in question was uploaded to his BBS before November 1986 when he began keeping track of who uploaded which files.

After a few more interviews, the investigators failed to find any violations of law and closed the case.

In the annals of software piracy and BBS investigations, this one is pretty minor — but it hit closer to home for me.

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