Friday, November 09, 2007


Retro-computer gaming is growing more and more popular. Hundreds of thousands of people who played games such as ZORK, Lode Runner, Oil Barons, and Karateka are downloading games like these and reliving the 1980s and 1990s. (For younger gamers, it's a first-time experience.)

Old games made available for download on the Web are often referred to "abandonware." However, a lot of abandonware is not abandoned; it's just too difficult to enforce the copyright. LucasFilms works to keep its games off abandonware sites, but almost everything seems to pop up sooner or later. I even found an Atari ST version of my 1986 graphic/text adventure game at one site.

The games are largely forgotten, and many of the manufacturers, such as Sierra On-Line and Broderbund, are no more. Hence, the assumption that the games are free to all or "in the public domain." They're definitely not in the public domain; none of the copyrights have run out. A good number of games have been made available by their copyright owners, but not everything out there is in this category.

I mention this in part because there are probably readers who would enjoy some of the old games--those legitimately made available. To find them, Google "abandonware." I also mention it because I think that many of the oldies could be reintroduced and marketed successfully. In their heyday, these games had a short shelf-life because the market was constantly on the lookout for something new, and only those games that were mega-sellers were kept around. (Sounds a lot like the mass-market paperback market.)

Then there's the possibility of books becoming "abandonware." Thousands of out-of-copyright classics are now e-books (see Project Gutenberg). But I'm beginning to wonder how long it is before more contemporary books are given the reputation of being "abandoned," and start appearing at download sites. It takes some effort to scan and OCR an entire book (300 pages or more), but some people are willing to do it. And once the genie is out of the bottle--once a book's content is on the Web--you can't put it back. Pirated ebook versions of commercial bestsellers are already being sold on the Web and on eBay (The Da Vinci Code is just one example). If publishers don't try to stop this, I foresee hardcopy books going that way next. As soon as scammers are willing to put some work into intellectual property theft, we're done.


engtech said...

It's funny how technology changes things. By the time copyright has ended on almost anything involving technology, there'll be no way to play it back. If it wasn't for the people breaking copyright and creating emulators to play old games a lot of the abandonware would be unplayable.

In the past two years XBOX, Nintendo and Playstation have shaked things up a bit with the "live arcade" emulation of old games. Now abandonware catalogs suddenly have value again. No one will buy your PC game anymore, but the XBOX Live Arcade port is selling some units.

But what about 50-100 years from now?

I've been reading some of Charles Stross' scifi and I find myself agreeing with the idea that 1980s onwards is going to turn into a dark age from the view of human history because of file formats, DRM and the organic nature of the Internet making a huge body of information unavailable in the long term.

Michael A. Banks said...

I agree with the "dark ages" theory, Eric. I'll have to read some Charles Stross. (Just finished Michener's Space, by the way, and it's a great way to relive the excitement of the early space program.)

You know, getting back to the DRM and multiple file formats and multi-generational incompatibility, I wouldn't be surprised if we end up losing things. I have some manuscripts on old Apple ][+ disks that I need to someday put on CD.