What is Abandonware - Are Those Free Classic Games Legal to Download?

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Classic Gaming

I sometimes like to reminisce about the PC gaming days of old. This was back when you had to make something called a ‘boot disk’ to make your games run properly, and there were no such things as 3D video cards or online multiplayer action. Nowadays, if you go on the web looking for some of your favorite retro games, you may stumble across one of many abandonware sites where the game can be downloaded for free. This article will explain just what abandonware is and the legality behind downloading ‘free’ games from these type sites.

What is Abandonware?

The term abandonware has several meanings, but the most common implementation of the term is given to games that were produced by companies that are no longer in business. Basically, it means you can’t buy the game anymore because it is no longer being produced or supported by the company that originally released it. The justification behind these abandonware websites is that downloading the games for free won’t hurt anyone because nobody is making money off the game any longer. However, that logic is built on a shaky foundation.

Just because a company is no longer in business does not mean their copyright is no longer in effect. The problem is that when people freely copy and distribute games made by defunct companies, there is nobody around to enforce the copyright. I suppose you could look at it the way a child would when it comes to stealing a cookie out of the jar when nobody is looking. Just because nobody saw you do it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have taken that cookie.

The term ‘abandonware’ means nothing in a legal sense. It’s a catchphrase coined by some webmasters who put together a series of sites in the late 1990’s to promote older games that were no longer available in stores. For a copyright on something to be released so that others may use it, the owner of said copyright must formally release their rights. If a company is going out of business, why would they even do that?

But I Really Want to Play that Game!

In some ways, the downloading of abandonware is as much as moral issue as it is a legal one. I know there are sites where you can easily download hundreds of classic titles, absolutely for free and even with scanned box covers and instruction manuals. However, this is still stealing. Even if no lawyers come after you and no software companies send ‘cease and desist’ letters to the website, it is still not legal unless the original owner of that software has formally released their copyright to the public domain.

As for getting your hands on a retro PC game, there’s always plenty of eBay auctions where people sell old floppy disk games, and usually in lots. You can also check garage sales in your area or look around on Craigslist. You might be surprised what you turn up, plus you’d have the real package instead of just some digital copy. I’m not going to preach right or wrong here, but if you get busted downloading copyrighted software - even if it is decades old - don’t say I didn’t warn you.