the ESA. What is it and where did it come from?

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As many of you may be aware, the subject of copyright has come up here before.

I have noted that a large amount of games are protected by the ESA, even though these games are nowhere to be found, and probably never will be again. I would like to know what this ESA is, and where it came from. What purpose does it serve in keeping old games that have long ceased to be on the market in some limboland behind a vault door?