When Star Castle went on the blink, its owner telephoned for help.
For Cinematronics Inc. of El Cajon, Calif., makers of Star Castle and other video games, it was a lucky tip. A company troubleshooter recognized the caller's description of the game but not its setting. The sick Star Castle was encased in a cocktail table, a fancy model Cinematronics hadn't begun to produce yet.
That the owner of the cloned game thought he had the real thing is not surprising. When the set flickered on, the Cinematronics copyright flashed across the screen.
Copying of video games has become so commonplace, that, at Cinematronics, where executives maintain their humor, a new game was dubbed Rip-Off.
As expected the copiers ripped off Rip-Off.
Forget killer green spaceships and hurling red meteorites. Welcome to the real video war: the battle between legitimate makers of video games and their prolific imitators in the United States, Canada, England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and South Africa.
Asteroids begat Planetoids and Meteor; Missle Command bred Missile Attack; and Defender wrought Avenger.
Atari Inc.'s patent counsel Michael Sherrard attributes the horde of copies to imitators who, he believes, either "don't realize they are violating the copyright laws or don't believe these laws are going to be enforced."
While the major video companies in the United States are experiencing a boom, "Without the copiers, the boom would be that much greater," said Lila Zintner, marketing manager of Exidy Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., makers of Death Race, Destruction Derby, Circus and other amusement games.
Flagrant piracy, she said, "affects us drastically. It probably has decreased our sales by about 20 percent." Last year Exidy reported $40 million in video game sales.
At Midway Mfg. Co., a subsidiary of Bally Manufacturing Corp. of Chicago, video-game pirates so successfully cut into the market for the popular game Galaxian that "the demand for it started to wane," said Larry Berke, director of sales.
A worldwide problem, video piracy is exacerbated by "the difficulty of prosecuting copyright laws in other countries," Zintner explained.
Pirates have captured nearly a third of the foreign market, said Ralph Lally, publisher of Play Meter, an industry magazine.
"It destroys the market," complained Cinematronics' vice president of marketing, David Stroud.
The copiers "are waiting like vultures" for every new game, bemoaned Frank Ballouz, vice president of marketing at Atari in Sunnyvale.
By making copies of video games cheaper than the real thing, pirates drain profits from the legitimate video-game industry.
"If it gets any stronger in the U.S., manufacturers will have to think twice about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and development," Ballouz said.
Indeed, a good video game can have as much as half a million dollars in R&D behind it that eventually must be paid by the buyer.
Some of the pirates operate have ground. Others move surreptitiously. All of them seem to have one thing in common: speed.
By the time Cinematronics fills its Italian orders for a new game and ships them through Panama Canal, fast-working Italian copiers "can ruin the market," Stroud said.
Just as the nation's most popular video game, Pac-Man, was hitting the American market, a dozen copies cropped up in January at the Amusement Trades Exposition, in London, the biggest annual trade show.
The pirates did little to alter the game except to change the name to Puck Puck, Pic Man, Take Man, Munchyman and Bite Monster.
"The incredible number of game copies," Play Meter Magazine declared, was "the most sensational aspect of the year's ATE show."
For nearly as long as there have been video games -- that's only since Pong was introduced nine years ago -- there have been pirates.
"What does it take to copy?" queried Midway's Berke. "It's the electronic age."
"Electronics is not a hidden art," offered a one-time Bay-area pirate who asked that his name not be used.No matter what the circuitry of the machine, "people are going to be able to figure it out."
When he was a product manager he said he "would take all the components [of a popoular game] apart then copy both sides of the board. It takes 12 hours to strip the board and a couple of weeks to make reproductions."
"Anyone with an electronics background can do it." To minimize charges of copyright infringement his company added a useless dummy circuit that altered the game's internal workings slightly but didn't change the image on the screen.
Lately, however, the big video game makers have begun going after some of the flagrant copiers. Video games are copyrighted as audio visual work and are registered with the Library of Congress.
After tracing the trail of the bogus cocktail table Star Castle, Cinematronics is taking a Phoenix distributor to court.
After a court judgment, distributor Bernard Shapiro agreed to stop all sales of the fake Star Castle and to help retrieve all 75 copies he sold.
Recently, Cinematronics filed suit against K. Noma Enterprise of Tokyo, charging it made the copied Star Castle.
Atari, which is owned by Warner Communications, obtained a preliminary injunction against a Rhode Island firm for making Meteors, a game that Sherrard calls "an exact, identical copy of Asteroids."
"We are not willing to stop at merely getting an injunction," Sherrard added, saying that Atari hopes to obtain substantial cash damages as well.
In an effort to knock copies of Galaxian out of the American market, Midway attorneys brought an action before the International Trade Commission and they registered the Midway copyright with the U.S. Customs Service.
To attack Cosmic Alien, which Midway contends infringed its copyright in the Galaxian game, Midway brought suit against a Tokyo-based firm Universal Co. Ltd. and its San Francisco-based subsidiary.
In a consent judgment, makers of Cosmic Alien were enjoined from selling copies of that game in the United States.
But even Midway's aggressive action does little to halt the flow.