Abandonware is a term used to describe computer software that is no longer sold or supported, or whose copyright ownership may be unclear for various reasons. While the term has been applied largely to older games, other classes of software (such as productivity applications or utility software) are sometimes described as such.
Definitions of "abandoned" vary; generally, it refers to software no longer available for legal purchase, or of a certain age. Software companies may change their names, go bankrupt, enter into mergers, or cease to exist for a variety of reasons. When this happens, product rights are usually transferred to another company that may not sell or support the software acquired.
In most cases, software classed as abandonware is not in the public domain, as it has never had its original copyright revoked and some company still owns exclusive rights. Therefore, downloading such software is usually considered copyright infringement, though in practice copyright holders rarely enforce their abandonware copyrights.
People have distributed old software since shortly after the beginning of personal computing, but the activity remained low-key until the advent of the Internet. While trading old games has taken many names and forms, the term "abandonware" was coined by Peter Ringering in late 1996. Ringering found classic game websites similar to his own, contacted their webmasters, and formed the original Abandonware Ring in February 1997. This original webring was little more than a collection of sites linking to adventureclassicgaming.com. Another was a site indexing them all to provide a rudimentary search facility. In October 1997, the Interactive Digital Software Association sent cease and desist letters to all sites comprising the Abandonware Ring, which led to most shutting down. An unintended consequence (called the Streisand effect in internet parlance) was that it spurred others to create new abandonware sites and organizations that came to outnumber the original Ring members. Sites formed after the demise of the original Abandonware Ring include Abandonia and Home of the Underdogs.
Rarely has any abandonware case gone to court. In November 2006 the Library of Congress approved an exemption to the DMCA that permits the cracking of copy protection on software no longer being sold or supported by its copyright holder so that they can be archived and preserved without fear of retribution. It is still unlawful to distribute copies of old copyrighted software and games, with or without compensation, in any Berne Convention signatory country.
Several websites archive abandonware for download, including old versions of applications which are difficult to find by any other means. Much of this software fits the definition of "software that is no longer current, but is still of interest", but the line separating the use and distribution of abandonware from copyright infringement is blurry, and the term abandonware could be used to distribute software without proper notification of the owner.
The Internet Archive has created an archive of what it describes as "vintage software", as a way to preserve them. The project advocated for an exemption from the United States Digital Millennium Copyright Act to permit them to bypass copy protection, which was approved in 2003 for a period of 3 years. The exemption was renewed in 2006, and as of 27 October 2009 , has been indefinitely extended pending further rulemakings. The Archive does not offer this software for download, as the exemption is solely "for the purpose of preservation or archival reproduction of published digital works by a library or archive."
The term "abandonware" is broad, and encompasses many types of old software.
Software can be abandoned when it can only be used with obsolete technologies such as an Amiga, Atari or pre-Macintosh Apple computers. Companies do sometimes voluntarily relinquish copyright on software, putting it into the public domain, or re-license it as free software or as freeware. id Software is an early proponent of this practice, releasing the source code for the game engines (but not the actual game content, such as levels or textures) of some older titles under a free software license. Other examples include Amstrad, which supports emulation and free distribution of CPC and ZX Spectrum hardware ROMs and software, and Revolution Software, which released their game Beneath a Steel Sky as freeware and gave the engine's source code to the authors of ScummVM to add support for the game. Transfer of public domain or freely licensed software is perfectly legal, distinguishing it from abandonware which still has full copyright restrictions.
There are groups that lobby companies to release their software as freeware. These efforts have met with mixed results. One example is the library of educational titles released by MECC. MECC was sold to Brøderbund, which was sold to The Learning Company. When TLC was contacted about releasing classic MECC titles as freeware, the documentation proving that TLC held the rights to these titles could not be located, and therefore the rights for these titles are "in limbo" and may never be legally released.
The chilling effect of drawing a possible lawsuit can discourage release of source code. Efforts to persuade IBM to release OS/2 as open source software were ignored since some of the code was co-developed by Microsoft.
Old copyrights are sometimes left undefended. This can be due to intentional non-enforcement by owners due to software age or obsolescence, but sometimes results from a corporate copyright holder going out of business without explicitly transferring ownership, leaving no one aware of the right to defend the copyright.
Even if the copyright is not defended, copying of such software is still unlawful in most jurisdictions when a copyright is still in effect. Abandonware changes hands on the assumption that the resources required to enforce copyrights outweigh benefits a copyright holder might realize from selling software licenses. Additionally, abandonware proponents argue that distributing software for which there is no one to defend the copyright is morally acceptable, even where unsupported by current law. Companies that have gone out of business without transferring their copyrights are an example of this; many hardware and software companies that developed older systems are long since out of business and precise documentation of the copyrights may not be readily available.
Often the availability of abandonware on the Internet is related to the willingness of copyright holders to defend their copyrights. For example, unencumbered games for Colecovision are markedly easier to find on the Internet than unencumbered games for Mattel Intellivision in large part because there is still a company that makes money by selling Intellivision games while no such company exists for the Colecovision.
Proponents of abandonware argue that it is more ethical to make copies of such software than new software that still sells.Those ignorant of copyright law have incorrectly taken this to mean that abandonware is legal to distribute, although no software written since 1964 is old enough for copyright to have expired in the US. Even in cases where the original company no longer exists, the rights usually belong to someone else, though no one may be able to trace actual ownership, including the owners themselves.
Abandonware advocates also frequently cite historical preservation as a reason for trading abandoned software. Older computer media are fragile and prone to rapid deterioration, necessitating transfer of these materials to more modern, stable media and generation of many copies to ensure the software will not simply disappear. Users of still-functional older computer systems argue for the need of abandonware because re-release of software by copyright holders will most likely target modern systems or incompatible media instead, preventing legal purchase of compatible software.
Those who oppose these practices argue that distribution denies the copyright holder potential sales, in the form of re-released titles, official emulation, and so on. Likewise, if people can acquire an old version of a program for free, they may be less likely to purchase a newer version if the old version meets their needs.
Copyright law does not recognize the term or concept of "abandonware". There is a long held concept of abandonment in trademark law as a direct result of the infinite term of trademark protection. Currently, a copyright can be released into the public domain if the owner clearly does so in writing; however this formal process is not considered abandoning, but rather releasing. Those who do not own a copyright cannot merely claim the copyright abandoned and start using protected works without permission of the copyright holder, who could then seek legal remedy.
Hosting and distributing copyrighted software without permission is illegal. Copyright holders, sometimes through the Entertainment Software Association, send cease and desist letters, and some sites have shut down or removed infringing software as a result. However, most of the Association's efforts are devoted to new games, due to those titles possessing the greatest value.
Once the copyright on a piece of software has expired, it automatically falls into public domain. Such software can be legally distributed without restrictions. However, due to the length of copyright terms in most countries, this has yet to happen for most software. All countries that observe the Berne Convention enforce copyright ownership for at least 50 years after publication or the author's death. However, individual countries may choose to enforce copyrights for longer periods. In the United States, copyright durations are determined based on authorship. For most published works, the duration is 70 years after the author's death. However, for anonymous works, works published under a pseudonym or works made for hire, the duration is 120 years after publication. In France, copyright durations are 70 years after the relevant date (date of author's death or publication) for either classes.
However, because of the length of copyright enforcement in most countries, it is likely that by the time a piece of software defaults to public domain, it will have long become obsolete, irrelevant, or incompatible with any existing hardware. Additionally, due to the relatively short commercial, as well as physical, lifespans of most digital media, it is entirely possible that by the time the copyright expires for a piece of software, it will no longer exist in any form.
Abandonware is computer software which is no longer being sold or supported by its copyright holder. Alternately, the term is also used for software which is still available, but on which further support and development has been deliberately discontinued.
The most common abandonware is old video games, either computer games or older video game console or arcade games that are played through emulation. Many people think that various older games are more fun than newer games (hence old school gamers), in part because their designers had to concentrate on game play features other than graphics, so these games have gained a second life by being distributed through the Internet. Old school gamers are responsible for the popularity of console emulation. An abandonware fan is a video game player who thinks that video games that are no longer on the market are more fun than video games that are still on the market. It's worth noting that in many cases, nostalgia is a significant factor in the popularity of abandonware video games.
Abandonware's copyright is frequently no longer defended. This can be due to intentional non-enforcement by its owners due to the software's age or obsolescence, but sometimes because the corporate copyright holder went out of business without transferring ownership, leaving no one to defend the copyright. (Copyrights owned by an individual who dies become the property of the person's estate.)
Proponents of abandonware argue that it is more ethical to make copies of such software than new software that still sells. Some who are ignorant of copyright law have incorrectly taken this to mean that abandonware is legal to distribute; no software is old enough for its copyrights to have expired, and even in cases where the original company no longer exists, the rights still belong to someone.
Transfer of this software is still technically unlawful in most jurisdictions (except in cases of owner dissolution) as the copyright is still in effect. Abandonware changes hands based on the presumption that the time and money that a copyright holder would have to spend enforcing the copyright is greater than any money the holder would earn selling software licenses. Often the availability of abandonware on the internet is related to the willingness of copyright holders to defend their copyrights. For example, unencumbered emulators and games for Colecovision are markedly easier to find on the internet than unencumbered emulators and games for Mattel Intellivision in large part because there is still a company that makes money by selling Intellivision games while no such company exists for the Colecovision.
Companies do sometimes voluntarily relinquish copyright on software, putting it into the public domain, or re-license it as freeware or open source. id Software is notable as an early proponent of this practice, releasing older titles under an open source license. Another example is Amstrad, who support emulation and free distribution of ZX Spectrum hardware ROMs and software. Transfer of public domain or free software is perfectly legal, distinguishing it from abandonware. However, relinquishing copyright is uncommon — the copyright ownership of all portions is often unclear, creating difficulties in open-sourcing, and there is rarely an economic incentive to do so. Also, limited time promotional free downloads are often mistaken for a proper freeware release.
A common misconception is that "abandonware" is synonymous with "old warez", that is, any software older than a certain threshold (a common one being five years). This is not always the case, as some software companies (like Apogee) still offer many of their older titles for sale and actively pursue those who illegally offer them. Atari 2600 games are commonly distributed on the internet based on the presumption that no one would buy a primitive Atari game. However, mobile phone manufacturers have bought the rights to use these games, which can be made to work well on newer programmable mobile phones.
Some publishers argue that all abandonware distribution is harmful, whether it is still possible to buy the game or not. The reasoning is that because of the success companies like Nintendo and Activision have had in releasing old games for newer platforms like the GameCube, Game Boy Advance and the PlayStation 2, all abandonware has potential value, and that distributing it free on the internet decreases the profits to be had from a legal rerelease.
The following formerly retail games have been made available for free download by their copyright holders for various reasons, often as publicity for a forthcoming sequel or compilation release.
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