The Pirates of PC-DOS

I was playing round with a joke program to produce computerized ouija-board messages (you generate random letters with the correct distribution frequency for English, and let the spelling checker make its best guess at each word). Imagine my surprise when I began to receive astral-serial communications from Sir William Schwenck Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who is trying to finish a new, topical and posthumous operetta. Here is all I can remember of his draft libretto for The Pirates of PC-DOS.

This opens with software pirates debating an apprentice who's signed up with them until his 21st birthday – which is today. But since DOS accepts no dates as existing before 1 January 1980, they argue that the poor guy can't clock up 21 years and escape his indentures until 2001. "We've bugs and glitches met in flocks, But none to beat this paradox!" Then comes a song as the buccaneers plan their foray into data theft....

A rollicking band of pirates we,
Who, tired of Basic and of C,
Are trying our hand at burglaree
With weapons grim and gory.
We are not hacking for bankers' gold,
A story pays much more, we're told:
We seek a royalty fiftyfold
From selling our hacking story!

The grim and gory weapons are duly distributed:

Take your modem and your cable kit,
Your BIOS manual – helps you tweak that bit –
Your disassembler and your DEBUG seize,
Take your disk with the algorithmic keys –

Against these miscreants, however, are ranged the stout-hearted men of the Federation Against Software Theft, all somewhat surprisingly equipped with golden hearts full of sympathy for the wicked....

When the enterprising hacker's not a-hacking
At the Stock Exchange or starting World War III,
He loves to hear his Sony Walkman quacking,
Or to watch the blues of Hill Street – as do we –
When the copy-breaker's flogged a stolen copy,
He loves to scan the third page of the Sun;
Ah, forgive us that we're pardonably stroppy:
A FASTman's lot is not a happy one.

The ensuing debacle is confused by the entrance of a Sorcerer who does a self-advertisement routine:

My name is A. Solomon (Doc.),
I'm a dealer in panic and shock,
In rumours of piracies,
Charms against viruses:
Placebos always in stock!

This is turn is interrupted by the Mikado himself, who has strong personal views on prison reform – "something humorous and lingering, with boiling oil or molten silicon" –

The software pirate and overpriced vendor,
Their dooms are just the same;
For they're made to fight through the endless night
With an obsolete video game:
At Kong, Invaders, Frogger, Defender,
Each hapless felon strives,
On a duff machine with a flickery screen
And a poke for fewer lives.

My object all sublime,
I shall achieve in time,
To let the punishment fit the crime,
The punishment fit the crime!

After some backchat from Sir Clive Pooh-Bah ("My family pride is something inconceivable. I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial membrane keyboard."), there enters a mysterious figure who seems to have strayed from yet another production, and who launches into something called the Sucrose Patter Song.

If you ask me how to rise in this hardware enterprise and become a mega-star,
I say, fill the papers' pages with some sentiments outrageous, never mind just what they are.
So a scheme that's hardly practical for selling weapons (tactical) means column space for free –
Then in headlines that are shockers you may castigate the "knockers", and it's all publicitee!

And everyone will say,
As you walk your flagrant way,
"If that young man gets quoted even on the BBC,
Why, what a most particularly famous man that bearded man must be."

Then does your product need improving? Still you keep the boxes moving and don't ever tell a soul:
But ensure each media mention is designed to shift attention from your quality control.
Though the magazines may grumble, you will never take a tumble while the punters all admire
Your delightfully outspoken words of confidence unbroken – in a cockney accent, squire.

And everyone will say,
As you walk your rough-hewn way,
"If that young man needs elocution lessons just like me,
Why, what a most particularly unspoilt man that bearded man must be!"

Enter, at this point, the Lord High Executioner, cooling his motherboard with a large Japanese fan, and ... and.... Will someone please take this libretto away from me before the lawyers do?

This column dates from 1989. For non-Brits it may help to be reminded that Dr Alan Solomon is the UK virus guru, that Sir Clive Sinclair produced some early membrane-keyboard home computers, and that the cockney-accented Alan Sugar (of tacky Amstrad computer fame) once remarked that he'd happily sell tactical nuclear weapons if there was a market. At the time there were hotly denied rumours that his current PC clones, having no fans, tended to overheat.... DRL