Wacky copy protection methods from the good old days

Software piracy has been around basically since the inception of software, and copy protection methods almost as long, so today’s discussions around DRM really isn’t anything new. All the way back in 1976, a certain Bill Gates wrote an open letter to a computer hobbyist club complaining that “most of you steal your software.” Back in those days, however, even he considered copy protection to just be in the way and wasn’t an advocate for it.
There has been a huge number of more or less creative methods to prevent people from making illegal copies of games and other software, but the ones we think are the most interesting (and amusing to look back at) are the ones involving actual physical extras. Though these days most copy protection is mostly software based, there was a period back in the 80’s and early 90’s when software developers pursued other methods, and game creators tended to be extra inventive.
Here are a few gems from that era.


In the early 80’s several games (most famously Elite) on platforms like Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum shipped with something called the Lenslok. It was a small plastic device that contained a row of vertical prisms. A scrambled code would be shown on the screen, and only by viewing it through the Lenslok could you decipher it and start the game.
One big problem with the Lenslok was that it couldn’t be calibrated for all screen sizes, so some people with very large or very small screens couldn’t descramble the code. There were also instances where incorrect Lensloks were bundled with games, which probably wasn’t a very popular move.

Above left: The Lenslok in action. Above right: The Lenslok that came with Elite.

Code wheels

In the late 80’s and early 90’s several games shipped with a special code wheel that was necessary for being able to play the game, often related to in-game mechanics.
For example, The Secret of Monkey Island came with a “Dial-A-Pirate” wheel, and Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge came with a “Mix’n’Mojo Voodoo Ingredient Proportion Dial” wheel.

Above left: The code wheel for The Secret of Monkey Island. Above right: The code wheel for Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge.

Code books and manuals

One of the more common systems back in the day was manuals and code books with content that you needed to complete the game.
Some games for example demanded that you entered word X on line Y of page Z of the manual. More creative variations existed as well, for example King Quest III had sections where the player needed to create magic spells, but could only do so with the help of magic formulas from the game’s manual.
Many of these manuals had key sections printed on dark paper, which made photocopying more difficult.


Dongles started appearing in the early 80’s and were used both for games and commercial software of other kinds. The dongle would need to be plugged in to the computer somehow, often through the serial or parallel port. Without the device plugged in, the software wouldn’t run.
The very first program to use a dongle was Wordcraft on the Commodore PET in 1980. Its dongle (the inventor named it so for lack of a better word) connected to the computer’s external cassette port and was two cubic inches large (32 cubic centimeters). We were unfortunately unable to find a picture of it.
These days some software uses USB dongles for copy protection, so we’re not rid of them yet. Dongles are pretty unpopular among users (it’s arguably one of the most hated software protection methods ever), so usually only more specialized and expensive software get away with using them.

Above: A parallel port dongle.


These were extra items included with Infocom games. Feelies were themed after the specific games and just as with code books they often included something that was necessary to be able to finish the game, thus acting as an entertaining form of copy protection.
For example, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the Commodore 64 came with things like “Peril Sensitive Sunglasses” (opaque black glasses), the order to destroy Earth, Pocket Fluff, a Don’t Panic! Button, and a Microscopic Space Fleet (an empty plastic bag).
There were also other companies that included extra goodies simply to entice people to buy the game instead of copying it, but without any actual copy protection involved.

Above: Some of the feelies for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy video game.

When games decided you were cheating…

There were also some fun ways that games reacted if you failed to properly enter your code or whatever it was that was necessary to play the game, or if the game overall decided that it had been copied illegally.
Here are a few examples:

  • Starflight would send unbeatable police ships that destroyed your spaceship.
  • Superior Soccer would make the soccer ball in the game invisible, thus making it impossible to play it.

This kind of crippling is something that some games still do if they think they are being played from an illegal copy.

Fond(ish) memories of a bygone era

These old copy protections methods have led to fond – and sometimes not so fond – memories for a lot of gamers. We’ll finish off with a comic strip from the excellent guys at Penny Arcade, which we couldn’t help but share with you here:

Now all that is missing is sharks, with lasers on their heads!
Image credits: Feelies from Álvaro Ibáñez (ours is slightly cropped). Dongle from Wikipedia. Code wheel for Monkey Island 2 from Scummbar.com. Small Monkey Island 1 code wheel from Gamesradar and the larger from Hector Pierna Sanchez. Lenslok images from c64-wiki.com and The Bird Sanctuary.


  1. The “Feelies” for HHGTTG weren’t required to finish the game, of course. The cloth maps that came with the Ultima games might come closer to the ‘copy protection’ aspect, as it was much easier to find your destination on the map then travel there.
    My favorite Infocom feelie was the scratch-and-sniff card from Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

  2. I really liked the copy protection on the original Civilization.
    Which two civ advances are required to learn ‘X’.
    Once you’d played it enough you didn’t need the manual… I think if you got it wrong, all it did was disband all your units.

  3. HAHA! Yes, another fan of Sid Meier’s Copy Protection here too: Railroad Tycoon required you to identify one of the train engines used in the game. After you’d been playing long enough, this was second nature. (Though, some folks knew the American or European locomotives better.)
    My first copy of SimCity asked for the population of a city printed on a black-on-dark red reference sheet. I assume that was difficult to photocopy.

  4. Great article. The memories… that damn Lenslok, I could never fathom out what code it was and used to just give up and play something else.

  5. Before LHX would start, it would ask you a specific question about a specific helicopter’s specs, which you were expected to look up in the manual. If you got it wrong, it would ask you another specific question about a specific helicopter. If you got it wrong 3 times, the game would abort, and you would have to run it again.
    However, every 5 or 10 questions or so, it would ask you a simple math question instead. Like 7 + 5. If you didn’t have the manual, you could just hit enter for every question you couldn’t answer, and wait for one you could.

  6. I remember the black on dark red reference sheet. What a bummer that was to read in the middle of the night!
    If I remember right, the first Leisure Suit Larry had a bunch of questions (to determine your age) and then a reference question from the manual.
    I also remember the Video Toaster. What a great piece of techno that was at the time. Totally proprietary with the software. Microsoft would have been proud!

  7. Yeah, I remember all of these (except the dongle, fortunately). As for the age portion of the Leisure Suit Larry protection, this “friend of mine” who played those games, was annoyed that as the game got older the question became increasingly irrelevant. I mean, just because I’m over thirty — I mean, my friend — doesn’t mean I still remember the characters on “Dallas.”

  8. Leisure Suit Larry games had a pretty interesting copy protection methods as well. In some games, they had some questions that were supposed to only be able to be answered by adults. In another game, you had a little black book, and you had to match phone numbers to women.

  9. Stunts used manual-based copy protection and gave you three tries. After failing, you still get into the game – but your car blows up within the first seconds of every race, with the message “You forgot to disable the car’s on-board security system!”
    Golden Axe for PC used a manual-based copy protection too, but it would ask you over and over again without any penalty. If you just typed “axe” over and over you’d eventually get it right.

  10. Many games had the game manual lookup option. They would have three or so questions that required you to look up a certain word on a certain page in the instruction manual. As manuals were often distributed with the games, they started making a “lookup book” on very dark paper (unable to be photocopied). I remember the Keef the Thief being so dark of black-on-brown, that I had to shine a spotlight on it to read it.

  11. I remember the first Championship Manager had attendance figures posted inside the box lid.
    DRM isn’t about stopping piracy, though, it’s about control these days.
    Think about it: Ten years from now, you want to play Spore. Or any other game with DRM that requires activation. It’s thanks to pirates we’ll still be able to play these games. I doubt you’ll be able to still activate Spore and the like in ten years time. The companies are building in an expiration date. Planned obsolescence if you will. Essentially forcing you to buy new games.
    Pirates should be commended IMO for archiving these works for the future, when EA and the like would rather you never play the game you bought and buy another one. It’s thanks to them we’re still able to play a lot of older games, and their work has become even more important in this era of crippling controls. (Can’t call it copy protection as any check of a torrent site shows that claim is nonsense.)
    And not all versions of Elite came with that stupid copy protection. (Though it’s amusing to see that even back then, the developers didn’t give a damn about screwing over a percentage of users.) The version I had on the Spectrum didn’t.
    And anyone who wants to know the effectiveness of dongles… Just google the Amiga version of Robocop 3. Classic story that always makes me laugh.
    Lesson to developers: NEVER say something is uncrackable.

  12. I could be wrong, it’s been a long time, but I sorta remember something along these lines from Ultima 7 – you’re asked questions as part of the main quest, which were given as part of the lore in the manual… I wasn’t all that great protection I guess, but it really kind of was a plus, you know?

  13. Zork Zero had the blueprint from Frobozz Construction with a yellow sticky note telling you where the item was in the maze, plus a calendar that gave clues without which you’d be stuffed. Not to mention the scrap of parchment that was completely useless in game. You HAD to look at the physical copy of it for it to be of any use.
    Leisure Suit Larry’s adult protection wasn’t so useful once you worked out that Ctrl+Alt+X bypassed the whole lot…

  14. Ha, we managed to copy Monkey island anyway – then we photocopied the wheel and stuck it together! I loved playing that game so much as a kid!

  15. Chuck Yeagers Air Combat asked you to type in some detail about one of the in game planes. When I lost my ‘manual’ (Read 20 photocopied pages :/) I had to keep going round til it asked me the one I could remember.
    The beauty was that the game had loads of plane stats included, so I just went to the plane info pages and noted down the details there. Interestingly not all of them were correct as far as the copy protection was concerned.
    Zool had a black on black code wheel I remember. That was difficult to read in the daylight, let alone in my dingy computer room.
    I got a copy of test drive three with out any of the copy protection, the game became ‘how far can you get in the 30 seconds that it gives you before the car blows up’.

  16. I remember the manuals for X-Wing and TIE Fighter had access codes you needed for login; the screen would show you a code in Aurebesh and you had to find the corresponding code and type out the english equivalent. They were three-letter Aurabesh and full English words so just knowing how to transliterate wouldn’t get you anywhere.

  17. I think it’s about time business start re-thinking their business models. We live in a different world, and too many of these people who create software, games, music and movies… still focus on a pay-per-copy model. There has to be a better way, and i’m sure many of the companies who thought outside the box are doing just fine.
    When my mom wrote her book, she never did it to make money. Instead, she just wanted to tell her story. Out of hundreds of publishing companies, just 2 decided to make her a deal. She refused, and now her book sells at a slightly higher price per copy, but she retains full control over distribution. She had to think outside the box. Plenty of business will sell a book if it fits in with their ideas.
    I have an uncle who’s friend made a CD in the Santa Cruz, CA area, and she distributes music through select shops around the country. She’s not trying to get her music distributed in WalMart or Target. Instead, the small shops sell plenty of copies and keeps her and the shop owners in business.

  18. On f117a stealth fighter 2.0 you had a look up a particular jet fighter shown when you start the game. Still have the manual for the game, so it’s no problem.

  19. Earthbound would Display a message that was something akin to “You’re playing an illegal game. Stop it” And if you continued, it’d make the enemies twice as hard, with half the experience. (Spiteful Crows would be a bitch) And if you managed to get to Giygas, it’d freeze and wipe your save data.

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