Kopec Explains Software
Computing Concepts Simplified
1 month ago

#131 Abandonware

If it's not for sale, can you download it?

Transcript
David Kopec

Software that is old and no longer available for sale is sometimes referred to as abandonware. But is it legal to download abandonware, and is it ethical? Welcome to Copeck explains software, the podcast where we make computing intelligible. In this episode, we're going to be discussing abandonware. Abandonware is a term used to refer to software that is old and no longer commercially available. There are many websites where folks can download all kinds of abandonware for platforms, from MS DOS all the way up to recent Macs and everything in between. But abandonware is not a legal term, and in this episode, I'm not a lawyer and neither is Rebecca going to, to the best of our ability, explain some of the legal issues around abandoned software, and we'll discuss our opinions about whether or not it's okay to download abandonware.

Rebecca Kopec

I think we should start with, why would anyone even want to use abandonware? Like, if something isn't commercially available, why is someone even bothering to get it right?

David Kopec

I would say the largest category of abandonware is games. There's a lot of old games that you can no longer purchase. Maybe they were made for a platform that is no longer commercially viable, or maybe the game developer went out of business, or maybe there's newer versions that are available, but the older versions are not. And folks are downloading and playing these old games. That's the number one type of abandonware. But there's another, I would say, actually more important segments. There are old pieces of commercial software that people still need to do their jobs. Two industries where I know abandonware is somewhat prevalent are in music production and print production, folks who need to lay out things for a specific type of printer. I also have some interesting anecdotes beyond those, but those are the two that I've seen the most. I do want to tell you about one of those anecdotes. I had a former student who worked at a sawmill doing technical work for the sawmill, and they still use commercial software from the 1980s running on DOS to program the sawmill. So how should the sawmill cut some wood? How do you lay out how those cuts are going to be? That software is no longer commercially available, but the equipment still works, and the equipment is still controlled by that software. So they needed ways of keeping that software running over decades of time, even though the software had been abandoned by its original commercial manufacturer. So two big categories of abandonware, games and software that people actually need for their jobs. Those are the two most prevalent.

Rebecca Kopec

And where do people find this? Like, how are they even accessing it?

David Kopec

Yeah, there are big repositories online. I happen to be familiar the most with kind of the Macintosh community. There's two big websites, Macintosh repository and the Macintosh garden, that have literally thousands and thousands of software titles that are no longer being commercially sold for the Macintosh. So those might be titles from the eighties, nineties and even the oos that you can't actually go to a store and buy. You can't go on the Mac App Store and download them. You can't go to staples and get a CD case anymore. These are pieces of software that you can't purchase. But you can go on these websites and literally just download. Now, is that legal? There are even bigger sites that are for games for DOS or games for Windows, things like that. Let's get into that a little later about the legality. But it's incredibly easy to go and find this stuff. It's all over the web.

Rebecca Kopec

In some ways that's kind of nice. These things that someone might treasure or maybe makes me think of one person's trash as another person's treasure.

David Kopec

Yeah, absolutely. I think that these software programs still have a lot of value to some people, either entertainment value or practical value. Software that was built in the eighties and nineties was very sophisticated. Just because it wasn't running on as sophisticated hardware as we have today doesn't mean it had some very sophisticated business functions, features or entertainment value.

Rebecca Kopec

Are folks running this software on their computers from today? Like, don't you, don't they need maybe special hardware to even make it work?

David Kopec

Yeah. So folks are sometimes running this on the old original hardware. And this is their only way of being able to get software for that old original hardware. Because, you know, floppy disks stop working over time. Even CD roms have a shelf life. And while you might be able to find some of these titles somewhere on eBay or something, this is the main way that many of them are available. So some folks running old hardware, this is their only way of getting software for that old hardware. But folks on newer hardware, a lot of the software won't just directly run. You'll have to use an emulator. And we've done a prior episode on what is an emulator? So I'll link to that in the show notes. But in short, an emulator pretends to be another hardware platform running as a layer of abstraction on top of the hardware platform in front of you. So you can have your Windows PC pretending to be a 1986 Macintosh, and then you can run some of those abandonware titles in that emulator on top of Windows, on your personal pc.

Rebecca Kopec

And one of the arguments for abandonware is that it's a service in some ways. The folks who are using it are keeping almost like historical record and are utilizing or treasuring something that is no longer available.

David Kopec

Right. And theres also an archival aspect to this. Theres a history here. Some of these programs are either incredible achievements or theyre works of art, and they should actually be preserved in some way. So there are organizations like the Internet Archive that have large repositories of abandonware, and they even have emulators built into their website where you can directly go and use those programs live on the web without even having to install your own emulator or get your own hardware, so that there are legitimate archival purposes for this to exist. And then we can discuss more about whether or not there are legitimate entertainment purposes and production purposes. Should people just have to buy a new program? Should people not be able to play games that are no longer sold?

Rebecca Kopec

I mean, it seems like the kind of thing where someone wants to play an old board game, a vintage board game, they'd be allowed to do that. So it should be the same with software, right.

David Kopec

Well, I think there's a complicating factor there, which is that if you want that vintage old board game, you're going to have to go and buy it secondhand. Now, you could actually go and buy a lot of the stuff that people are downloading secondhand. Like I said earlier, you could go on eBay and find an old floppy disk. You could go and buy secondhand an old CD Rom. Not everything is out there, but a lot of these programs are. Should people have to do that? That's a different question. And then who's being hurt? What laws are being broken? I think this would be a good time to get into that.

Rebecca Kopec

Yeah. So let's dive into it. What laws are being broken here?

David Kopec

Chiefly copyright laws, and we've talked in a lot of prior episodes about how software is protected by copyright law. Copyright law in the United States and in most countries is for a very long term. It's for 70 years after the author's death. In most countries, it can be 95 years from the date of publication, depending on the exact circumstances. But almost no software has expired. Its copyright, the first software comes out in the 1950s, and we're here in 2024. So nothing just automatically went out of copyright and went into the public domain. So unless something has been put by its original creator into the public domain, which they can do or has been freely licensed, like they've said, hey, we're releasing this as freeware. This old software, which some companies have done. For example, Borland went and put some early versions of its compilers out there as freeware. Some game companies have put some of their early games out there as freeware. Some famous tech companies like Microsoft and Apple have put some historical source code, like the first source code for Mac paint and the first source code for Microsoft dos out there under educational licenses so that anyone can download it and compile it. So there are pieces of software that have been released into either the public domain or under licenses that allow anyone to download them even though they've been, quote unquote abandoned in the sense that they're no longer being sold. But that's not the vast majority of software titles. The vast, vast, vast majority of software titles are still covered under their original copyrights and somebody still owns those original copyrights. People talk a lot in the abandoned where community about the exceptions, like, oh, we don't know who owns the rights to this, but the most titles that are out there, actually some, we do know who owns the rights to it and it's up to them legally if they want to relinquish that copyright. Now we could debate whether or not copyright terms are way too long. My personal opinion is that they are. But the fact is, by the letter of the law, no, you do not have the legal right to just go and download a piece of software that somebody else has the copyright to. That's a viable violation of their copyright unless they've given you the permission to do so.

Rebecca Kopec

So everyone using abandonware is breaking the law. And it just seems like one of those laws that like, really, you know.

David Kopec

Well, there's the letter of the law and then there's also enforcement of the law, right? So obviously the fact that these websites exist and they're not being taken down by lawyers shows you that for the most part, companies are not coming after folks who are utilizing abandonware. So even though they could, and legally they have every right to, they don't see a purpose to do that. And that might be for multiple reasons. One is they're just not going to recover many damages, right? If you're quote unquote, stealing a $20 gain from 1992, is it worth it for them to track you down and sue you? Probably not. Probably not, right? Or on the other hand, maybe it would hurt their brand image, right? Like if they're coming after somebody who actually loves their products. Let's do a game company again, right? Let's say there's a game company that had some classics in the 1980s and 1990s that they no longer sell in any way and people are downloading them without compensating them. Right. Is it going to look good for their image, for their modern games and their community of users and players to go after these folks who love their old games? Probably not. So for practical purposes, there's not a lot of enforcement around a lot of the abandonware titles that get traded over the web. But again, that doesn't mean that it's, it's legal. It is still technically illegal and they could come after it. Now let's talk about a company that does do that, and they have a reason to. Nintendo. Nintendo. Nintendo is famous for coming after folks who trade their Roms. Roms are like an old NES game or an old super Nintendo game. And you might say, why are they coming after people for a game that came out 30 or even sometimes 35 years ago? Well, they actually still sell those games. Not only do they sell still the characters, like, let's say you took a Rom for Super Mario Bros. From 1985, right? They don't only still have Super Mario games, but they actually still have like an online service where you can use one of their built emulators to play Super Mario Bros. So you could. They actually are still selling it. It's not really abandonware because they're still selling it. But even if there's something tangentially related, the fact that they're selling some of their old games might mean in the future they could sell some of their other old games. And so they have a way of doing this. They have an audience that's willing to pay for it. So I guess you can understand why they might come after folks who are trading it illegally. Now. I think they're particularly litigious and they go after users of their old software more than most companies. And I'm trying to present both sides here. So at the same time, my personal opinion is that copyright terms are too long, but that the fact is we live under the society that we live under and that those are the laws of the land, and Nintendo does have the right to do that by the law.

Rebecca Kopec

Is there abandonware that you're using now?

David Kopec

So I will admit to using some old Macintosh educational games with my son because I grew up on some of those games in the nineties. They're no longer available. There's no way to purchase them. Theres a couple that you can purchase CD roms of, and I actually have purchased one. But yeah, there are some old games from the nineties that I have downloaded as abandonware and used on an old Mac and my son has really enjoyed them. I actually owned the games in the nineties so most of them, so I dont think its that crazy. I actually still have the CD roms in a box somewhere, but the one or two that I didn't own. Yeah, I think technically I'm breaking the law. And could that company come after me? Yeah they could. I don't think they're going to, but they could. And you'll have to decide for yourself if I'm being ethical using those old educational games, but I certainly would not do that if I could pay to purchase them. So if there was a way for me to go and pay the original manufacturer, I think that's different than just somebody selling one at a garage sale. But if there was some way I could compensate the people who actually own the game for that game, I would actually do that instead of downloading it through one of these repositories. There's an analogy here. We did a prior episode on Napster, which I'll link to in the show notes, but to when people pirated music in the late nineties. Early oo's Apple came out with the iTunes music store, which was the first store that really had a big deal with music publishers for folks to download individual songs. And it was ninety nine cents a song and it was instantaneous and it kind of wiped out file sharing for a lot of people. Some people of course still went and did file sharing and there were other ones after Napster was shut down. But having a legal way to go and get the games was actually what most people wanted to do. And of course the itunes music store was a huge success when it came out. There are some websites doing this for games. There's good old games, goG.com, and there's a lot of games that they have that are actually run through emulators or been made to run in a special environment on newer machines that before their website existed would have been considered abandonware. But now they've made it easy for these companies to make these games available again and they're being commercially sold again. So I think when people have the choice to purchase, they're actually willing to do so. I've certainly purchased several things on GOG.com dot. So abandonware is only abandoned where as long as the software is no longer abandoned, once the company goes and is commercially selling it again, I think the ethical equation really changes because then you actually have a way to obtain that old work of art or just entertainment or productive piece of software without having to go and quote unquote steal it. I think you need to look into that before you download some abandonware. See, is this really abandonware? Can I actually go purchase it somewhere? Where do you fall on the ethics of this?

Rebecca Kopec

I feel like this is one of those times where it's okay to use a bandworm. This is software that wouldn't necessarily be touched otherwise. I get to see our son really enjoying it. That's kind of fun. Been fun for me, bringing up some nostalgia there, I guess. So. I feel like it's one of those where is anyone being hurt here? No, is actually there's more potential for someone maybe learning or being helped or getting some enjoyment out of it. So I land on it. I think it's okay.

David Kopec

No one's getting hurt as long as again, it's no longer for sale and there's no alternatives for sale. Right. So let's think of another option. Let's say like Microsoft Word 95. Okay, that's a version of Word that came out literally 30 years ago. Is that 20 years ago or 30 years ago? 30 years ago. Wow, I'm getting old. 30 years ago. You could write a lot of the same documents in Word 95 as you can write in whatever the current version of Word is. But you're not compensating Microsoft and all the people who worked on Microsoft Word. If you just go download that old version again, I think it's a case by case basis. I think this term abandonware is used very broadly on the web for just any piece of software that's old and that's not really, they're not all in the same boat. If there is a newer version of the software, then maybe it's not really abandoned. It's just that there's newer versions. So I think you need to be careful there. And then for the folks who like stridently argue about kind of the games again, I think it's ok. My personal ethics are that if it's truly no longer being sold and the publisher seems to not care, then it's okay. But if the publisher goes against you like Nintendo does and says don't do this, don't do this, look, they have the legal right to do that. That's the society we live under. I don't agree with all the laws in this country, but I follow them for the most part. But if somebody feels so stridently about something they own and they don't want you to have it, well I'm sorry, but the game is not like a life or death thing. If you don't get to play, um, some game that came out of the 1980s because the company says you can't and goes and stridently stops you from doing so, I don't think it's such a big deal in your life. There are plenty of other games to play. Um, and so I think we have to respect property rights and the folks who own things. As an author myself, I don't like it when people pirate my books, right? So if a game manufacturer says, hey, I really don't want people pirating my games. I really don't want people trading my games, even if I'm not selling them anymore, well, I wouldn't want somebody, one of my books that is really. I have a book that really isn't sold anymore. I still don't want people trading it personally, not because I'm some, like, awful, greedy ogre, but I have thoughts in the future of maybe updating it. And so if I do go in the future and update it, and it's been widely just traded as a PDF, well, there's going to be less incentive for people to purchase my newer version of the book. And I can imagine the game companies, some of them feel the same way. So if the company is out there and saying, hey, don't do this, it's their property, and I think we need to respect that to some extent. It's not a life or death decision.

Rebecca Kopec

That's fair.

David Kopec

Anyway, so it was fun in this episode, getting to talk about some of our personal opinions, something we don't always do on every episode. You'll have to make your own ethical decision about abandonware. But the one thing I'd leave you with is really think about it on a case by case basis. Is this something that truly, there's no modern alternative to that you could pay for? Is this something that anybody is being hurt by you purchasing in the sense that are the creators not being compensated because you downloaded it? And if neither of that is the case, my personal opinion, and I'm not a lawyer and it is illegal, is that's probably okay. But, you know, it really is a case by case thing, I think, and I think we use this title and this term, which is not a legal term, abandonware far too broadly. Okay, thanks for listening to us this week, Rebecca. How can people get in touch with us on X?

Rebecca Kopec

We're OPEC explains. K o P e C e x p l a I n s. Thanks.

David Kopec

For listening, and we'll see you in a few weeks. Bye.

Abandonware is old software that is no longer commercially available. It's not a legal term, and in fact it's not legal to download most of the software that is termed "abandonware." In this episode we explain what abandonware is, the different legal situations that old software finds itself in, and we discuss whether or not downloading abandonware is ethical.

Show Notes

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