What is abandonware and is it legal to use it?

If there are a couple of retro RPGs or other games you still feel a strong nostalgia about and sometimes even have a strong urge to play them, you might have already searched for the ways to install it on your gaming platform. We have described some of the legal ways to do it in one of our articles. Yet, providing you have searched for your favourite game online, you might have come across web services offering their visitors to download so-called abandonware.

What is it exactly and should you use it for playing?

What does the abandonware term mean?

As you can guess from the term itself, abandonware is a kind of abandoned software. Indeed, the term is used for describing the software which was “abandoned” by its developers. For example, there is no support for the game anymore. Another popular situation is a company resigning from enforcing the copyright actively. This can happen when the owners of the copyright ceased their business or sold it to another company which is not interested in that particular product.

In fact, any game can become abandonware officially. This happens when the developers or the owner of the copyright makes an official announcement. For instance, the company can release the entire source code of their game like it happened with the popular Descent game in 1997. You can find a great variety of games which became abandonware in the same way.

Is using abandonware legal?

If a game officially becomes abandonware, you might think now you can play it for free legally. This seems to be logical, but it doesn’t work exactly in this way because of the details of the copyright law.

Actually, even though the company officially abandons their software, it is still not public property. The work will become public property only after the expiration of the copyright. Of course, the duration of the copyright differs from country to country, but generally, in the case of video games, it lasts for at least 70 years, and in some countries can be even up to 125 years. As you can count, none of the games which were released even in 80s has become public property yet.

Now, in all likelihood, you might be wondering how does it happen that such websites as Abandonia which are focused on distribution retro games are staying up without any interruptions in running. Don’t these services have any legal issues, do they?

As we have just said, abandoned games are not public property yet, so their distribution is illegal. Yet, since they have been abandoned by the owners of the copyright and some of them were officially proclaimed abandoned, the owners of the copyright are generally not interested in the enforcing the copyright law. Furthermore, the majority of old games even don’t have real owners anymore, so their real status on the market is rather ambiguous. Even though they still do not belong to public, there is no one who can enforce the copyright in order to prevent the illegal distribution of these games.

For instance, if you check the abandonware websites, you will find System Shock on the majority of them. The official owner of the copyright for this action-adventure game is Electronic Arts. Yet, the company is just not bothered about the fate of this game, so it doesn’t take any steps in order to sue the violators of the copyright law.

Can you download abandonware legally?

Of course, since abandonware is not legal itself, downloading such games is also illegal. Yet, because of the reasons we have described above, the probability of having any legal issues because of using abandonware is rather small. Actually, you will hardly find any information about court cases related to the illegal usage or even distribution of abandonware.

Usually, when a company wants a service offering abandonware for downloading to stop distributing their games, they first send an official letter to this website. As you can imagine, the teams of such websites simply take down the game which usually finishes the case.

Pay your attention to a different situation when the software is released by its developer completely free of charge. Some developers even release their games under public licences, for instance General Public Licence. Games, released in such a way, can’t be reclaimed, however, further versions of the games will be held by the developer with a different copyright.

The websites providing the Internet users with access to absolutely different old games, are usually using the hosting services in the countries without rather serious attitude to copyright enforcement. For instance, the hosting service of one of the greatest websites of this type called Home of the Underdogs is located in Thailand.

Don’t forget about some companies which don’t want to spoil their public relations by suing the users or distributors of their abandoned software which is still enjoys the attention of a great group of fans.