I’ve recently made a Facebook post trying to explain a little on why so many pirated and cloned items in Brazil.
I’ll take the liberty to copy it here.
Original post can be found here:
How was it possible to have so many pirated and cloned Atari games and systems in Brazil?
To understand that we must travel back in time a little. Be patient! 🙂
On April 1st 1964 Brazil went through a military coup. A Field Marshall was nominated President and the country started a 25-year ruling under a right-wing, nationalist government. And as in every other centralizing and nationalizing government, economy was placed under strict government control. And so when the “computer revolution of the 70s” began, our military government opted to protect the newborn Brazilian computer industry against international corporations. In 1979 the SEI (“Secretaria Especial de Informática”, or Special Informatics Bureau) was founded, a government department responsible to decide who could or couldn’t manufacture computers in Brazil. The importing of computers and components was strictly controlled.
But what was the plan behind it? The goal was to create an environment that nurtured a national industry of informatics. Since Brazilians could not buy Commodore PET, TRS-80 or Apple ][ directly, Brazilian industry would naturally create its own computers, processor and software from scratch. Importing components was a slow, expensive and bureaucratic process. All manufacturers were required to sign in at SEI and inform what they intended to manufacture, and how many units, and then wait for government approval. And SEI could, unilaterally, dismiss your plans and simply say “you are not allowed to manufacture that”.
Of course reality came in the way. Our manufacturers, with no resources and knowledge to create computer lines from scratch, ended up copying international products. The “development of new computer lines” turned onto a license to reverse engineer and clone existing product- specially computers whose parts could be independently bough in Taiwan or in the USA, like said TRS-80 and Apple but also MSX, CoCo and even Sinclair computers. Those computers with dedicated components that could not be easily found were naturally protected – It was due to the SID chip that no Commodore 64 clone was ever made.
By that time there was a very strong “gray market” of components and manufactured goods. Our government planned stimulating all our industry, not only the computer branch. So, it was strictly forbidden to import cars, for example. Also there was a very strict currency control, with a personal “quota” of how many dollars a Brazilian could buy when travelling abroad. That way, even legally buying a computer by walking inside a Miami store during your vacation was very hard. Due to that every wealthy adult Brazilian had two friendly criminals: A “doleiro”, a person you could buy dollars (cash) by paying a overprice – and it was such a common thing that the black market conversion rate was announced on the news daily! - And an “importabandista” (import + contraband), a guy who could smuggle all those juicy things you wanted, from Scotch whiskey to Converse sneakers, from Pringles fries to… Computers and video games.
Brazilian companies basically smuggle components from Taiwan so they can manufacture clones – most of the time scratching identification marks on chips so their clones would not be cloned later on. Then those computers went to market with outrageous prices – the first Brazilian PC-XT clones costed around 10,000 USD with NO adjust to inflation, while an original IBM PC with similar configuration costed about 2,000 USD.
What about software? The rule was the same – international software could not be imported and had no right to intellectual protection. Brazilian developed software was protected, though. So manufacturers basically copied BIOS and OS, slightly modded it - sometimes translated parts of it – and distributed it as “developed in Brazil”, which was protected under Brazilian law!
Finally! Let´s talk Atari 2600, shall we?
Atari was officially release in the USA in 1977, but in Brazil the first units arrived on early 80s, in an amateurish way and with crazy prices. First consoles were smuggled and then “Brazilianized” in an amateurish way, with electrical adaptions for the PAL-M TV Standard. A box and documentation in Brazilian Portuguese was printed and then it all went to stores. By that time the first bootlegged carts appeared – sometimes the ROM was modified so the original copyright holder was erased to simulate a “developed in Brazil” status.
When the legal videogame market officially started in 1983, with Polyvox paying royalties to Atari Inc. and Philips doing the same to Magnavox for the Odyssey2 system, it seemed for a while things would change. But soon enough some companies realized that that was a market just too good to be ignored and pirated carts flooded in. That, we must remind our readers, were considered perfectly legal since foreign software had no protection under law.
One must remember that in early 80s Brazil was a rich country (it was once the worlds´ 5th economy) and home to some 100 million inhabitants, all avid for the latest fad they saw on TV or in the movies.
And when the first pirated carts (cheap, and in so many different titles) circulated without any legal hiccups, a lot of manufacturers decided to jump in too. The few larger manufacturers that still paid royalties (Polyvox licensed Atari and Activision games; CCE apparently licensed Bit Corp. games; Possibly Dismac licensed their early releases, or claimed to) quickly found out that they were throwing money away and no licensing was ever needed and then also began releasing all sorts of pirated games.
Dozens of small companies popped out everywhere selling pirated carts. A group of Brazilian users recently listed as many as 150 different brands, manufacturers or distributors of Atari games. Some of those sold nationwide like said Polyvox, CCE and Dismac but also Dynacom, Robby and Digitel, among others. Some were VERY strong in some cities but not that strong in others, like “Canal 3”, who was a powerhouse in São Paulo but not that well known elsewhere, or “Atari Mania”, really common in Rio de Janeiro but nearly unheard of outside Rio. Smaller companies existed in distant states, and even small rental stores released their “brands” in mid-sized cities around the country. It was plain wild.
Once again, all of that was perfectly legal under Brazilian law. Actually, selling a pirated Atari cart was perfectly fine – but having an original, USA Atari game in your house was a crime of contraband!