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Updated on July 6, 2008

Abandonware - The Good Old Games

Abandonware is computer software that by means of time is no longer current. That therm has been applied mostly to old games, but some classes of software are also described as Abandonware. So basically the definition of "abandonware" is used to refer to sofware that is no longer available for purchase or that is at least a certain amount of years old.

The term abandonware has no legal meaning, and some abandonware are not in the public domain, so they cannot be legally copied or distributed without the permission of the owner. Copyrights in the U.S. do not expire until 70 years after the death of the copyright owner, or if the copyright is held by a company (as is often the case with software), 95 years after first publication.

Software companies (like companies in many other industries) change their names, go bankrupt, merge with other companies or cease to be for a variety of reasons. When this happens, the rights of the products are usually transferred to some other company, who may or may not sell or support the software.

The term "abandonware" is normaly used to make distributing that software appear legitimate, in the case where the software is still under copyright protection.

While some companies actively defend their old copyright, such as LucasArts (maker of games like Indiana Jones), other companies have released their old work into the public domain. There are still some companies that dont have an active statement either way.

The History

People have distributed old software since shortly after the dawn of personal computing, but the activity remained low-key until the advent of the Internet. While trading old games has had many names and forms, the actual term "abandonware" was coined by Peter Ringering in late 1996. Ringering found a few classic game websites similar to his own, contacted their webmasters, and formed the original "Abandonware Ring" in February 1997. The original Ring was little more than links to each other's websites, with one site indexing them all to provide a rudimentary search facility.

In October of 1997 , the Interactive Digital Software Association sent cease and desist letters to all sites on the Abandonware Ring, which resulted in most of them shutting down. This had the unintended effect of spurring others to create their own abandonware sites and organizations, many more than the original Ring. Some of the early abandonware sites formed after the demise of the original ring include Classic Trash and Home of the Underdogs

Types of Abandonware

The term abandonware is broad, and encompasses many different types of old software.

  • Commercial software unsupported but still owned by a viable company can be easy or hard for researchers to locate. The availability of the software depends on the company's attitude towards the old software (and in many cases, the company which owns the rights to the software may in fact not be the same company with which it originated and may even not remember they own it).
  • Commercial software apparently owned by a company that is no longer in business can also be difficult to locate, but often no entity defends the copyright if this software is put onto abandonware web sites. However, the rights to the software may have been bought by another company or have reverted to the original authors, who could bring copyright lawsuits against those copying the software without permission.
  • Old shareware whose author still makes it available can be found online. Finding historical versions, however, can be difficult since most shareware archives delete old versions when new versions came out. Authors may or may not make older releases available.
  • Old shareware that was once released, but the author is no longer maintaining or supporting it. Again, finding historical versions is possible in some cases, but very difficult.
  • Open source and freeware programs can be abandoned. In some cases, the source code is still available or was part of the release, which can be an interesting historical artifact.

The Law and the Abandonware

There is no recognition of a legal term abandonware in copyright law. There is a long held concept of abandonment in trademark law, but it is a direct result of the infinite term of trademark protection. Currently, a copyright can be released into the public domain if the owner clearly does so in writing; however this formal process is not considered abandoning, but rather releasing. Those who do not own a copyright cannot merely claim the copyright abandoned and start using it without permission of the copyright holder, who would then have a legal remedy.

Hosting and distributing copyrighted software without permission is illegal. Copyright holders, sometimes through the Entertainment Software Association, send cease and desist letters, and some sites have shut down or removed software as a result. However, according to Wired magazine, most of the association's efforts are spent on new games, due to those titles having the highest value.

Companies do sometimes voluntarily relinquish copyright on software, putting it into the public domain, or re-license it as free software or freeware. id Software is an early proponent of a similar practice, releasing the source code for the game engine (but not the actual game content, such as levels or textures) of some older titles under a free software license. Other examples include Amstrad, who support emulation and free distribution of CPC and ZX Spectrum hardware ROMs and software, and Revolution Software, which released their game Beneath a Steel Sky as freeware and gave the engine's source code to the authors of ScummVM to add support for the game. Transfer of public domain or free software is perfectly legal, distinguishing it from copyrighted abandonware.

Enforcement of copyright

Old copyrights are sometimes not defended. This can be due to intentional non-enforcement by their owners due to the software's age or obsolescence, but sometimes because the corporate copyright holder went out of business without explicitly transferring ownership, leaving no one aware of their right to defend the copyright. Nevertheless, some companies (such as LucasArts) vigorously defend their rights to old software.

Even if the copyright is not defended, copying of this software is still unlawful in most jurisdictions when the copyright is still in effect. Abandonware changes hands based on the presumption that the time and money that a copyright holder would have to spend enforcing the copyright is greater than any money the holder would earn selling software licenses. Additionally, proponents argue that distributing software for whom there is nobody to defend the copyright is acceptable. Companies that have gone out of business without transferring their copyrights are an example of this; many manufacturers and software companies that developed for older systems are long since out of business and precise documentation of the copyrights may not even be readily available.


Proponents of abandonware argue that it is more ethical to make copies of such software than new software that still sells. Some who dont know the copyright law have incorrectly taken this to mean that abandonware is legal to distribute, although no software written since 1964 is old enough for its copyrights to have expired. Even in cases where the original company no longer exists, the rights usually still belong to someone else, though no one may know who actually owns the rights, including the owners themselves.

Abandonware advocates also frequently cite historical preservation as a reason for trading abandoned software. Older computer media is fragile and very prone to rapid deterioration, and therefore it is necessary to copy these materials to a more modern and stable medium and generate as many copies as possible to ensure the software will not disappear.

Users of still-functional older computer systems argue that they need abandonware because even if a title is re-released by its copyright holder, the new version most likely will be for a modern PC computer, while their older system may be an old PC or not even a PC at all. Additionally, re-released software is most likely not available in the medium used by old computer systems (5.25" diskette, cartridge, cassette tape, etc.) and therefore there is no way to legally purchase compatible software for old computers.

Those who oppose these practices argue that distributing this software can still deny the copyright holder potential sales, in the form of re-released titles, official emulation systems, and so on. Likewise, if people can acquire an old version of a program for free, they may be less likely to purchase a newer version for a price if the old version will meet their needs.

Links to abandonware sites:


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