Sunday, 24 February, 2002

Abandonware Games

Gamespot ran an article recently about abandonware games:  computer games that are no longer available through retail channels, and no longer marketed, distributed, or supported by the companies that published them.  The list of such games is long indeed, and includes TriTryst, the first game I ever wrote.  People are collecting the games and making them available for free over the Internet; a practice which has raised more than one eyebrow.  Software publishers insist that to do so is a violation of their copyrights.  Activist game junkies insist that, since the publishers have "abandoned" the titles, they have somehow relinquished their rights to control the distribution.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that copyright law be amended to include such a clause.  Most of the arguments are along the lines of "once you've let the cat out of the bag, you can't put it back in."  From my perspective, it looks like just another attempt at eliminating laws that protect intellectual property.

A common argument is that by making a protected work available the publisher incurs some public obligation, in perpetuity, to continue to make that work available regardless of financial considerations.  If the publisher decides to stop distributing the work, then it must release the work into the public domain, transfer the rights to somebody else, or in some other way continue to make the work available.  I disagree.  Strongly.  The creator of a work should, under the law, have full control over that work's disposition.  The creator of a work (or those to whom he assigns rights), not "the public" has, and should continue to have, full control over the work's disposition, including removing it from the market at any time for any reason whatsoever.  Intellectual property is property, and its creators and owners deserve full protection.

That said, I'm happy to see TriTryst and other abandoned games available on the abandonware sites.  The more respectable of the sites (The Underdog is one such) have a policy of not posting games that are currently active, and removing any game if the publisher so requests.  Copyright holders, for the most part, allow this to continue because the old games increase the publishers' exposure without affecting of their new games.  As long as the abandonware sites honor publishers' requests to discontinue distribution of particular games, then everybody wins, except those who would dictate to an owner how his property is to be used.