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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.

History

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.

Archives

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 Archivemarker 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 is currently due to expire on 27 October 2009. 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."

Types

The term "abandonware" is broad, and encompasses many types of old software.

  • Commercial software unsupported but still owned by a viable company: The availability of the software depends on the company's attitude toward the software. In many cases, the company which owns the software rights may not be that which originated it, or may not recognize their ownership. Some companies, such as Borland, make some software available online, in a form of freeware. Others do not make old versions available for free use and do not permit people to copy the software.


  • Commercial software apparently owned by a company no longer in business: Often, no entity defends the copyright if such software is put onto abandonware websites. An example of this is Digital Research's original PL/I compiler for DOS. However, the rights to the software may have been bought by another company or have reverted to its original authors, who could file lawsuits against those copying software without permission.


  • Shareware whose author still makes it available: Finding historical versions, however, can be difficult since most shareware archives remove past versions with the release of new versions. Authors may or may not make older releases available. Some websites collect and offer for download old versions of shareware, freeware, and (in some cases) commercial applications. In some cases these sites had to remove past versions of software, particularly if the company producing that software still maintains it, or if later software releases introduce Digital Rights Management, whereby old versions could be viewed as DRM circumvention.


  • Unsupported or unmaintained shareware: Again, finding historical versions may be possible, but very difficult.


  • Open source and freeware programs that have been abandoned: In some cases, source code remains available, which can prove a historical artifact. An interesting case is PC-LISP, still found online, which implements the Franz Lisp dialect. The DOS based PC-LISP still runs well within emulators and on Microsoft Windows.


Abandoning 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.

Enforcement of copyright

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 no one remains to defend the copyright is ethically acceptable even where unsupported by current law. Companies that have gone out of business without transferring copyrights are an example; 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.

Case for preservation

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.

US copyright law

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.

French legislation

French legislation also does not recognize the term or concept of "abandonware", but it makes a difference concerning video games depending on who owns the property of the game:
  • If the game is owned by one or several individuals, it is protected during the life of all of these persons, with an additional 70 years after the death of the last owner.
  • If the game is owned by a company, it is protected during the 70 years following the release of the game.
However, French legislation is not clear on how to classify a game between the two categories. Furthermore, bankruptcy, disappearance, or sale of a company further complicates the issue.

See also



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