Abandonware and some possible reasons why it exists

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Nathaniel Tolbert's picture

Abandonware. We've all heard of it, most of us have even called programs we have it. Many of us have complained about the fact that it even exists at all. But the sad fact is that the term Abandonware is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. I'll start with a rough definition of what the term is; Abandonware: A software product, especially a video game, whose copyright is no longer defended or which is no longer marketed even by the company who made it. 1 (sorry don't know how to do superset here.) The definition is simple and easy to understand. A game, or software product that isn't defended via copyright law by the producer anymore.

But how can this exist at all? With copyright laws currently extending life of the creator plus 90 years this means that any product made since the mid to late 1920's should be covered by copyright law, correct? Well, technically this is true, and holds true for all of the software that is termed "abandonware". This means that realistically, every time you download an old computer game, you are infringing copyright. 'But people do it all the time with old software and I never hear of them getting in trouble.' You say. Again, that is true, but the fact is that if the copyright holder at any point in time decided that they wanted to go after anyone whom had downloaded their product without paying for it and you were taken to court over it, you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. But this doesn't answer why it exists at all does it? I've only explained how it technically doesn't exist. There are countless reasons as to why some software is coined as abandonware and I will attempt to discuss a few of what I see as major ones below.

The first reason I see for software to be deemed abandonware is because there is no company to back up their assertion of copyright infringement. In other words, the company that made the game no longer exists, and no other company purchased their intellectual property. This has happened a few times to certain companies, but mostly in the early heydays of computers. (Please don't ask me specific companies, as I don't have the time to research it carefully right now. But suffice to say, it is a very small amount that fits in this category.) Granted, that the creators of the product, or the family of the creators of the product can still enforce their copyright on the product they don't. Also the way some companies were set up back then the actual creators of the software didn't own the rights to anything they created (I'm looking at you Activision). So when the company went belly up, their products once what was on the shelves sold, there was no more. But as I said above, this is quite an uncommon form of abandonware.

The second reason I feel for abandonware existence comes solely from the state of the computer market. There are a lot of us that grew up with rudimentary graphics and sound and we have no problems with either of these points when the games are incredible fun. But the simple truth of the matter is that these games will not be interesting or pull the attention of the common gamer playing games. These old software creations pull nostalgia from the people who play them, bringing back memories of childhood, like playing Space Quest 1 with my dad in the evening after my homework was done. (And when he wasn't around.... Leisure Suit Larry.. heh heh.) This is what keeps us going back to them. Me especially, as I have beaten all of the space quest games over and over, but I continue to go back and play them again. (And show them to my friends and my wife, so she can see what I did as a kid.) To a gamer that has never played them before, like the children who were raised with nothing older than a PlayStation, they look at them and go, 'these games look horrible. How could you ever play that?' And then they sit down to trash talk on the Xbox Live while playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Urghh. They never stop to think that maybe there is more to games than graphics. It really brings home to me a comment (that I couldn't find. Curse you Internets!!!) by Roberta Williams 2 when she was posed the question of why adventure games were no longer popular. To paraphrase she basically said, 'It's because gamers got dumber.' Ouch.

The third reason I feel for a lot of programs becoming labeled as abandonware is solely based on the fact that no one really wants to try and sell them. This reason is actually broken into several parts. First the state of the computer game market means that the average store has less than 5 shelves worth of space devoted to computer games period. There is no way to get a physical presence for classic games in stores where older people who might become nostalgic and buy them can see them. Second, the companies that designed these games do not want to do technical support for these old games. Imagine the headache of trying to run Pools of Radiance on a Windows 7 machine. I had problems getting it to run proper on my 486-25, let alone a 3.2GHz quad core processor. Third, and pretty much final is that companies don't see profit in these games and see no reason to re-release them in their original form on the market. We may see a remake in the future, but god only knows when, and there is no guarantee that the product will even remotely resemble the original product in any way other than character names and settings. (Look at this reboot of the space quest series that got canned. 3 Shudder, if that doesn't make you ill, I don't know what will.)

So what can be done about this term? How can we preserve the history of computer games (and consoles if you want to dig in to that as well.) for future generations to gawk at and wonder how we ever played that? Thankfully, there are some companies already doing so. With a list of titles that are growing, and all are classics in their own right, Good Old Games is doing just that 4. These are complete downloads with the incredible dosbox program to allow running classic games in a newer computer environment (I'm not certain how they fix games such as Baldur's Gate or such as I still have my original purchased version and play it on an old Pentium III 866). Gamer's Gate also provides some classic 90's games in packs as well 5. But this is only a selection of games, and mostly only the games labeled as classics. Where are the old SSI Gold Boxes? Where are the old Infocom classics (and not so classics like Leather Goddess from Phobos?) What about all of the incredible games that came out during the late 70's and all through the 80's? You basically don't see them any more, except on sites where they are labeled as abandonware. It would be nice to have a company that would re-release all of these classic games, say in CD-ROM format with a dosbox wrapper and a nice little box so that future generations could play, but I just don't see that happening, because companies aren't willing to license their products, and they don't think there is any money in it for them. So, regrettably for at least the near and possible moderate future, there will be software called abandonware and anyone wanting to get their hands on classic games and not pay 300 dollars on e-bay, they will be downloading that software from sites that supply it.

Just a quick random thought, maybe if anyone sees this blog, would you pay say 5-10 dollars for a miniature boxed re-release of classic software of CD? Like say Pool of radiance in a shrunken gold box with a layout like say the original box? Let me know in the comments below.

Links and my one reference
1. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/abandonware
2. http://www.adventureclassicgaming.com/index.php/site/interviews/198/
3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_82FQBzKLA
4. http://www.gog.com/en/frontpage/
5. http://www.gamersgate.com/


Heider (not verified)
I usually spent money on

I usually spent money on classic old pc games at GOG. I'd love to buy boxed editions of my favorite games like Heroes of Might and Magic or Baldur's Gate. And games like Bard's Tale or Pool of Twilight, great games that I've never played. Even try some text adventures, cause I'm brazilian and I think that these games must be a great way to learn English. But I don't know if I would pay more than 10 dolars on a boxed edition, or 5 dolar in a digital one.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Great post! For your

Great post!

For your interest, here's some older articles I've written on this great topic:
Games in Captivity
The Videogame in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If you haven't seen this, it's worth reading to: Scratchware Manifesto from Designer X.

Nathaniel Tolbert
Nathaniel Tolbert's picture
Joined: 11/06/2010
Great Reads

Thank you for the article links Matt. Those opinions are much more well formed than mine. I didn't think to pull in correlation with such areas as movie preservation and such. It seems that the simple fact is that the companies that hold the copyright for these old games do not care that people are still interested in the games at all. I asked my last question because I was sitting here thinking about various ideas for projects, and I thought, 'What if I could get the licensing to re-release old games, and have the ability to sell them on-line in a digital format, as well as the ability to print boxes and media to ship to people that were interested in that format as well?' I talked to my friend who used to work for a video game company my idea and he said that while it sounded great, it would never happen because those companies would never license their old software out due to the fact that they couldn't make millions off of it. Sad. I think it would be great to have the ability to say master new floppies and make a smaller box and re-sell games such as Quest for Glory and such. It would be in the interest of the big video game companies, as they would still make money as there would be a per sell fee to them as well as the licensing fee. So why haven't more companies been willing to do this? It all stems back to the feeling that gamers aren't interested in the old stuff so they couldn't make millions and millions of dollars off the sell of old stock. I have heard rumors that there are warehouse around the US, that are just full of old software, and they have no clue what to do with it. I wish I had the ability to call up these places and help them sell it so they could recoup their space, people could get their hands on some classic games in their original format and gaming history could be preserved. I just don't know how to start, nor do I have the money to fund such an expedition.

ironmaidenrule's picture
Joined: 12/02/2010

I think an Important part of abandonware is keeping some of the older games alive and stored in a digital format, much like dumping Rom's for emulation purposes. Without it, many classic PC games could be left to fade in to obscurity, the physical media can only last for so long before corrupting/destroy the software data.

Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
Joined: 08/31/2008

Great topic, Nathaniel.

I have a few thoughts on abandonware.

1: I think a lot of people are quick to dub something abandonware when they simply can't physically get their hands on it (from a brick and mortar store) or no longer possess the hardware needed in order to play it. While some items fall into this category, there are certainly many that do not. I think too many people simply justify piracy by dubbing a piece of software as "abandonware."

Unless it is legally available for distribution, it is still piracy.

No matter how inconvenient it feels, a piece of software that is not currently offered by the copyright holder is still copyrighted by the owner. Therefore if you want to play the old game, you should look to acquire it secondhand.

I am not trying to preach. I certainly have my fair share of abandonware.

2: At this point in time, software should be preserved. Period. Though games have evolved quite a bit over what would seem like many years, I would hope that it is still a young enough medium that it can be easily preserved - Not only digitally, but also in its original distribution form. I suppose some of that distribution is going to be sandwich bags full of floppy disks, but I consider the packaging to be a major part of the software - At least prior to the digital download age.

Have any of you heard of the movie "London After Midnight?" It's a silent movie from the 1920s that is just flat out lost. The last known copy was destroyed in a fire in MGM in the late 60s. I recently watched Spartacus, and even parts of it have been lost over the years. Some scenes have missing audio, and other scenes are completely missing.

How sad that an easily preservable part of history has been lost! While it is certainly regrettable that Venus de Milo is not completely intact, it is easier to accept the fact due to the medium and the passage of time. Movies are harder to accept, and videogames are almost impossible to accept as something that has been lost - this simply due to the fact they can be stored digitally.

While I am sure many people will have copies of The Legend of Zelda for NES for years and years, that is a popular game. I would hope, however, that each and every game has the "right" to be preserved over the passage of time.

(obviously a bit of an expansion on what ironmaidenrule wrote)

Joined: 03/23/2008
I wouldn't pay 10 dollars for a new version of Pool of Radiance

Mainly because I have the original version on 3.5 disks, and have a 3.5 inch USB floppy drive. And even though I played it as a kid, my original got trashed, so I only rebought it on ebay less than a year ago, and it only cost me $20...

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