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what is abandonwareMost websites that offer formerly paid software for free do so with little to no illusion of legality. However you feel about torrents of paid software and media, it’s unarguable that they are illegal in most countries. Which is why torrent sites are often harassed by law enforcement.

There is one type of site that’s managed to avoid most scorn, however – abandonware. Some of the sites we’ve covered in the past, like Abandonia 4 Sites Where You Can Download Old PC Games For Free 4 Sites Where You Can Download Old PC Games For Free Read More , have been around for over a decade. Does this mean abandonware is legal?

What Is Abandonware?

what is abandonware

The term “abandonware” refers to software for which support has been discontinued or copyright has not been actively enforced. Software usually becomes abandonware because the company that owns the rights to it has gone out of business or has been sold to a new owner who’s not interested in continuing development.

With that said, some software becomes abandonware through an official announcement or by cooperation by its developers. Source code for the video game Descent, for example, was released by the game’s developers in 1997. Numerous other games have had similar treatment.

Is Abandonware Legal?

define abandonware

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The simple answer is a definitive no. Copyrighted works What Is the Digital Media Copyright Act? What Is the Digital Media Copyright Act? Read More that have been abandoned by their creators do not automatically become public property. On the contrary, they remain protected for the duration of the copyright, which varies from country to country. Downloading a copyrighted work is illegal, too, so it’s not just the sites that could get in trouble.

So why is Abandonia still running? Like most laws, punishment only occurs if you get caught – and the other side is willing and able to make the charge stick. Most of the software listed on abandonware sites no longer have an owner, so no one can sue. In other cases the owner still exists but has decided not to enforce copyright. System Shock is currently owned by Electronic Arts, yet the original System Shock game can be found on many abandonware sites.

Despite the illegality of abandonware, I could find no court cases relating to it. Companies thinking of legal action often choose to send a cease-and-desist letter before filing a lawsuit. Abandonware sites almost always respond by closing shop or taking down the offending software. Those that stay live despite threats of a lawsuit seem to do so by using international borders to their advantage. Home of the Underdogs was founded in Thailand, while Abandonia is located in Sweden.

Another reason for the lack of legal precedent may be a desire for goodwill. Electronics Arts has the legal resources to remove every free copy of System Shock on the market, but what would be the point? Legal action could turn into a public relations disaster.

Because of these obstacles, abandonware is fairly safe. Those who distribute it are unlikely to be fined and those who download it probably won’t sued. Yet this safety could vanish at any time.

Of course, if a developer releases software for free, the story is different. Though rare, a number of games have been released under General Public License, Creative Commons 10 Different Creative Commons Projects That You Should Definitely Pay Attention To 10 Different Creative Commons Projects That You Should Definitely Pay Attention To Creative Commons has succeeded in championing the cause of open content. So much so that large swathes of intellectual properties are being kept open in the public domain…all licensed under Creative Commons. Let's take a... Read More and other publicly available licenses. Once a game is released in this way it can’t be reclaimed – but the developer might still hold copyright on new or altered versions of the game.

Where Does Good Old Games Fit In?

what is abandonware

Interest in old titles has recently been re-kindled by digital stores like Good Old Games, a business founded to sell titles that had gone out of print. The site (and competitors like Steam) managed to turn potential abandonware into a business. Rather than offering games for free, specialty retailers have worked out deals to legally offer out-of-print titles for download. Good Old Games has since been re-branded GOG because the site now offers new games alongside the old, but the core of its business remains the same.

In a way, the success of GOG has threatened the future of abandonware. Many titles that might have been abandoned are now sold for profit by whoever holds the rights to them (which, as often as not, isn’t the original developer). The potential for profit from old games gives owners a reason to fight for their property.

GOG’s success also highlights the the illegality of abandonware. The only difference between what’s on GOG and what’s on Abandonia is the threat of a lawsuit. Some justifications, like age or incompatibility with modern systems, no longer seem as strong.

Conclusion

Abandonware is illegal. Downloading commercial software for free is a copyright violation and you could, in theory, be sued. You almost certainly won’t be, but that doesn’t change the answer to the question of abandonware’s legality.

Image Credit: AlphaKeith Burtis

  1. Scott
    May 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Who here actually has downloaded from abandonware? What precautions did you take in order to not get caught?

  2. Marilou Fortin
    September 7, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I myself questionned about it and I already know the copyright duration here in canada but for my project I need consoles which are abandonwares so I asked the main company with which I wanna do business (nintendo in that case) I plan to start a net coffee (gamezone type) with the retro gaming theme...since rom are illegal I plan to own the original system and rent games and stations...thing is...I still need to pay copyrights...on this issue I contacted the company and asked them about it...but no answers yet...nintendo, I offer you a partnership, what else do you guys want?!!!

  3. Peter H
    May 3, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    It is interesting that books and music for which no owner can be found still cannot be republished or distributed "for the common good". This means the information contained in these works is locked up courtesy of government. It is like companies applying for a patent and then going bankrupt and disappearing. Their practices, processes and products cannot be used even if proven to be a lifesaver.

  4. Daniel Patterson
    February 12, 2013 at 12:50 am

    This is certainly an intriguing topic, especially the part about the whole idea of there actually being no one to sue you in the case of companies who have shut up shop.

    In my opinion though, I think that if a software company is going out of business it would be a nice last action to release their software under General Public License or Creative Commons. Anyone agree?

    • docharv
      February 12, 2013 at 1:34 am

      Not sure about every country, however, In most cases it is not illegal to just download. The key provision iw what you do after downloading. Usually that means you have to redistribute the software and it does not matter whether you do it free or charge.

  5. Igor Rizvi?
    February 12, 2013 at 12:46 am

    Thius is wrong on sooo many levels :S

  6. Karsten Hormann
    February 10, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    I've been buying games from GOG for some time now. For just a few bucks, I get a game that is guaranteed virus-free, legal, and works on Windows 7 without me having to setup or tweak anything.

  7. Doc
    February 7, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    You made quite a few valid points, but you glossed over the fact that a great number of copyrighted games have become freeware in recent years; many of them are listed at Liberated Games http://www.liberatedgames.com/

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      February 11, 2013 at 7:26 am

      Thank you for the link.

  8. Mar Viv
    February 7, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    I never heard of abandonware, but I truly agree that if it's copyrighted its got copyright. I cannot just be revoked.

  9. Florin Ardelian
    February 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    So I made a comment and it appeared as submitted, but it wasn't. I'll repost it, breaking it into smaller chunks:

    Note: This post is not legal advice. And should not be taken seriously... Yup!

    >Downloading a copyrighted work is illegal, too

    With your permission, I would like to correct that statement: Downloading a copyrighted work without the author's permission is most likely illegal.

    Uploading/downloading copyrighted work are legislated by each country separately. There are some agreements between many countries, but, just like you pointed out later, there are also "safe" places where piracy is either not legislated (therefore legal) or the legislation is not or cannot be enforced.

    ALSO, while uploading is illegal, downloading is either legal or the legislation cannot be enforced (eg, there are some biiiiig loopholes in Romanian legislation) if the download was performed using a personal network connection and a personal computer (personal = owned by an individual, not a company).

    • Florin Ardelian
      February 7, 2013 at 5:39 pm

      Further reading:

      http://www.ehow.com/list_6780679_countries-copyright-laws.html

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries'_copyright_lengths + https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Copyright_law_by_country

      http://raoulpop.com/2011/09/18/rampant-piracy-in-romania/ "As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net."

      http://www.iipa.com/rbc/2012/2012SPEC301ROMANIA.PDF (in particular, see the paragraph containing the acronym "ANRCTI")

      http://news.cnet.com/2100-1025_3-5121479.html (old article, but still valid AFAIK, please correct me if I'm wrong)

      It may be legal (but I'm not entirely sure) or the laws are easily avoided when it comes to downloading in these countries: Switzerland, Romania, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden.

      And the cherry on top: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_infringement#Countries_where_sharing_files_without_profit_is_legal

      • Florin Ardelian
        February 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

        Aaaaaaaand my original comment finally appeared. Great :/

        • Lisa Santika Onggrid
          February 11, 2013 at 7:27 am

          Well, that makes a pretty nice reading list Florin.

    • Florin Ardelian
      February 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      Wait, posting links to other websites, even Wikiepdia, is forbidden on MUO now? You should at least mark the comment as "edited by staff" or something.

      • Nevzat Akkaya
        February 8, 2013 at 7:21 am

        I've observed this too yesterday. I made some comments which never got displayed on that page, my other comments displayed minutes-maybe hours- later. Strange.

        • Florin Ardelian
          February 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm

          It seems they have some issues. At first, I didn't see my comment. Then, I saw my second post. Then I saw both posts. Then I saw only the first comment of my second post. Now I see all three of them. It was probably a bug (or they were waiting for approval), everything I've posted is there, all the links are there, nothing has been edited by anyone.

        • Pax
          February 8, 2013 at 4:04 pm

          It probably has to do with the links. I've gotten long delays whenever I've posted any comment that contains a link. Multiple links must really raise a red flag and puts it in the queue until it can be manually reviewed (however long it takes).

          This is a pretty common background anti-spam mechanism that kicks in on other sites as well.

          Fantastic comment btw!

  10. Florin Ardelian
    February 7, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Note: This post is not legal advice. And should not be taken seriously... Yup!

    >Downloading a copyrighted work is illegal, too

    With your permission, I would like to correct that statement: Downloading a copyrighted work without the author's permission is most likely illegal.

    Uploading/downloading copyrighted work are legislated by each country separately. There are some agreements between many countries, but, just like you pointed out later, there are also "safe" places where piracy is either not legislated (therefore legal) or the legislation is not or cannot be enforced.

    ALSO, while uploading is illegal, downloading is either legal or the legislation cannot be enforced (eg, there are some biiiiig loopholes in Romanian legislation) if the download was performed using a personal network connection and a personal computer (personal = owned by an individual, not a company).

    Further reading:

    http://www.ehow.com/list_6780679_countries-copyright-laws.html

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries'_copyright_lengths + https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Copyright_law_by_country

    http://raoulpop.com/2011/09/18/rampant-piracy-in-romania/ "As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net."

    http://www.iipa.com/rbc/2012/2012SPEC301ROMANIA.PDF (in particular, see the paragraph containing the acronym "ANRCTI")

    http://news.cnet.com/2100-1025_3-5121479.html (old article, but still valid AFAIK, please correct me if I'm wrong)

    It may be legal (but I'm not entirely sure) or the laws are easily avoided when it comes to downloading in these countries: Switzerland, Romania, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden.

    And the cherry on top: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_infringement#Countries_where_sharing_files_without_profit_is_legal

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