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What is Abandonware?

By Robert Grimmick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Abandonware is computer software that has effectively been discarded by its creator or distributor. The term is usually describes older video games, but can apply to any type of software no longer sold or supported. Since the late 1990s, a community dedicated to preserving and supporting abandoned software has developed, and hundreds of websites offer free downloads of old games and programs. Most abandonware is, however, not in the public domain, so downloading and installing these programs without the appropriate software licenses is technically copyright infringement in most countries. In practice, most rights holders seldom expend the effort

Computer software is a rapidly changing industry, and companies that develop, sell, and support software are under constant pressure to improve their products. This means that most software has a very limited window of commercial viability. Video games, for example, don’t usually bring in much revenue after about three years. As a result, many games and programs that were once very popular are not even legally available today. While they may not appeal to a wide audience, a small group of people driven by nostalgia or curiosity actively seek out these old programs.

Abandonware websites began to spring up in the late 1990s. Today, hundreds of these sites exist, offering free downloads of old games, obsolete applications, and out-of-date operating systems. The creators of many of these sites claim their primary purpose is to preserve software that might otherwise disappear forever. Games and programs found on abandonware sites are usually unavailable from their original publisher, and in many cases cannot be obtained through any other means.

The copyright on a game or software title doesn’t expire, however, simply because the product is obsolete. While a few rights holders have released their aging software into the public domain, most abandoned software remains under copyright. The Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA), a trade group that represents software companies, has taken a stand against the practice of distributing abandonware, arguing that while it may not harm publishers financially, it deprives them of the right to control their intellectual property. Downloading copyrighted software without permission is copyright infringement, regardless of the product’s retail availability. Some websites have shut down after receiving legal notices from the ISDA or other groups.

Despite the legal issues, abandonware sites continue to exist. Many site operators have avoided the wrath of the ISDA and others by removing content when asked or when publishers re-release older titles. Most copyright holders have limited resources to combat piracy generally, and as a result put most their energy into tackling unauthorized distribution of current products. Some abandoned programs are also "orphan works" — copyrighted material with no clear owner. U.S. copyright law, for example, has no provision for dealing with orphan works, so these applications can’t be legally sold or distributed even if there was a market for them.

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