ailon's DevBlog: Development related stuff in my life

My Startup Series: How Intellectual Property Theft Killed My First Startup

1/6/2012 6:28:06 PM

I got my first computer when I was about 13-14. It was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum Plus. I had it hooked up to a black and white TV that was probably smaller than my current phone. Well, maybe not the phone but probably smaller than my Kindle. And you had to load software from cassette tapes.

My first computer. Photo from Planet Sinclair.

USSR was living its final years but it still was USSR. There was no way to buy legal games or applications for the computer. To get some games you had to go to some basement and buy a service of recording pirated games to your own cassette (getting cassettes wasn’t a small feat either, but that’s another story). Another option was to copy games from friends or a “pusher” – someone who didn’t own a basement, but was selling pirated games anyway.

A friend of mine knew such a pusher. But at the time parents bought me my ZX Spectrum the guy was away and I couldn’t get any games. All I had was a computer manual. Funny thing is that computers of the time had programming tutorials right in their manuals. So out of boredom I taught myself some basic BASIC. This has probably defined all my life and the fact that I basically don’t play games.

Scan of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Plus Manual page from Retronaut.

Anyway, the pusher came back and delivered some games and I played them, but I was already hooked on programming.

After some small scale projects I set out to make a game. At that time the most popular TV show in USSR was a “Wheel of fortune” rip-off called “Поле чудес” (The Field of Wonders). So it was only natural that I wanted to make a computer game for that. I don’t recall how much time I’ve spent on it, but after some time it was ready and I’ve hosted a game with my parents and their friends. One of my father’s childhood friends was a programmer and he complemented me on the game, so I thought I was an awesome developer. I’ve shown the game to my “pusher” and he complemented me on it too. He even asked me to record a copy for him, so he can play at home.


I was young, I was born in USSR and I had no entrepreneurial aspirations at the time. I just made some product and was happy when people told me it was cool.

One day I went to a “basement software store”. There were printed catalogs of all the pirated games and applications you can get recorded on your cassettes. I’ve noticed The Field of Wonders on the list made by someone else and was excited to see what other programmers did and how does my game stack up against theirs. So I paid the guys to record me that game among others and went home.

When I loaded the game, my jaw dropped. It was my own game with all the copyrights and logos replaced with some other logos. When my friend came over he recognized the name of the “company” as the one our “pusher” used. The guy just took my game “rebranded” it and made some money. I’m pretty sure he didn’t make anything worth mentioning, but I didn’t make anything at all. I’ve actually lost a few cents by paying those basement pirates for my own game! So I was pretty upset, but I didn’t care much. I was even proud that my software was good enough for someone to steal and rebrand. I didn’t buy games from that pusher anymore, though.

That’s the story of my first startup and one of the milestones letting me pretend to be a serial entrepreneur. I’ll blog about my later endeavors in future posts.

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