Websites that offer formerly paid software for free do so with little to no illusion of legality. However you feel about torrents and warez sites offering paid software and media, it is clear that they are illegal in most countries.
There is one type of site that manages to avoid most scorn. Abandonware sites, like Abandonia, offer all manner of games, free to download. Many of these sites have been up and running for years, which begs the question: is abandonware legal?
What Is Abandonware?
The term “abandonware” refers to software that no longer has active support, or the copyright is no longer enforced actively. Software usually becomes abandonware because the company that owns the rights to it has gone out of business or has been sold to a new owner who’s not interested in continuing development.
With that said, some software becomes abandonware through an official announcement or by cooperation by its developers. Source code for the video game Descent, for example, was released by the game’s developers in 1997. Numerous other games have had similar treatment.
Is Abandonware Legal?
So, is abandonware legal for download?
The simple answer is no, abandonware is not legal. Even if the creator abandons a copyrighted work, it does not become public property automatically. The copyright on the work exists until the copyright expires, the duration of which varies from country to country. Typically, the copyright on a video game will last at least 70 years, and up to 125 years.
How, then, do sites like Abandonia stay up and running? Surely there is a constant stream of litigation landing on their digital doormat? Like most laws, punishment only occurs if you get caught—and the opposing side is willing and able to make the charge stick. Herein is why although abandonware is illegal, it straddles a delicate gray enforcement area.
The majority of content on abandonware sites no longer have an owner to enforce the copyright actively, so no one can sue. In other cases, the owner still exists but does not enforce the existing copyright. For example, you can find classic action-adventure game, System Shock, on heaps of abandonware sites, yet the current copyright holder, Electronic Arts, does nothing about it.
Is It Legal to Download Abandonware?
To answer that specific question, no, it is not legal to download abandonware. But are you likely to find the authorities knocking at your door? Or, end up in front of a judge for breaking copyright? That’s highly unlikely.
Despite the illegality of abandonware, there are no court cases relating to it. At least, none that I could find prosecuting someone for downloading and playing an abandonware title. Companies enforcing existing copyright tend to send a cease-and-desist letter before filing a lawsuit.
When that happens, the abandonware site takes down the offending title in response. There is little use in taking a publisher to court.
Abandonware isn’t actually legal to distribute
— Rich Uncle Pennybags (@runclepennybags) January 31, 2020
Those abandonware sites that continue to offer every abandonware title imaginable skirt international law, using hosting services in countries with a relaxed approach to piracy, copyright enforcement, and so on. For example, abandonware site Home of the Underdogs was founded in Thailand, while Abandonia is based in Sweden.
Of course, if a developer releases software for free, the story is different. Though rare, several games have been released under General Public License, Creative Commons, and other publicly available licenses. Once a game is released in this way, it can’t be reclaimed—but the developer might still hold copyright on new or altered versions of the game.
Another reason for the lack of legal precedent may be a desire for goodwill. Electronic Arts have the legal resources to remove every free copy of System Shock on the market. But what would be the point? Legal action could turn into a public relations disaster.
Similarly, on titles they do care about, like the Ultima series, you no longer find those on abandonware sites (see the section below on Good Old Games for further explanation).
Because of the obstacles laid out above, abandonware appears relatively safe from a legal standpoint. Those who distribute abandonware are unlikely to end up in court, so long as they comply with any cease-and-desist notices.
Is Abandonware Safe?
There are numerous abandonware sites, all offering a very similar list of old titles for download. With so many sites, surely downloading abandonware is safe?
The answer lies with the site you are downloading from. Major abandonware sites like MyAbandonware and Abandonia are safe, serving thousands of users every day. These sites also host almost every abandonware title, so you don’t need to head into the unknown depths of the internet looking for a title on a sketchy website.
Check out the best sites where you can safely download an old PC game for free
Reasons For Abandonware Sites and Downloads
Abandonware is illegal. That is understood. But there are other reasons why abandonware is an overall positive.
The primary reason is preservation. Abandonware sites preserve old games for anyone to access when many would simply disappear into the digital ether.
Although there are some efforts to protect old games and their source code, such as the Internet Archive or the efforts of the British Library, these projects are selective. Having the abandonware site option keeps even the more obscure titles alive.
Unfortunatly the game is abandonware, You cant get it via legal means even if you wanted to buy it. youll Have to Download the game from somewhere/pirate it.
— Pavo de fuego (@setnubis) March 11, 2020
The other thing to consider is the wishes of the game developers.
“Is it piracy? Yeah, sure. But so what?” says Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions (responsible for Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and many other classics).
“Most of the game makers aren’t living off the revenue from those old games anymore. Most of the creative teams behind all those games have long since left the companies that published them, so there’s no way the people who deserve to are still making royalties off them. So, go ahead—steal this game! Spread the love!”
What Is the Difference Between GOG and Other Abandonware Sites?
The interest in abandonware titles remains strong. Generations of old gamers want to boot up their favorites. Younger gamers are uncovering the old classics through abandonware sites.
But there is another site that has perhaps done more than any other in promoting and protecting abandonware titles: GOG.com.
GOG.com was formerly known as Good Old Games but updated its branding to reflect the sale of modern titles. Under the name Good Old Games, the site sold titles previously abandoned, turning abandonware into a successful business. Rather than offering abandonware titles for free, Good Old Games worked with the copyright holders to republish the games.
In a way, the success of GOG has threatened the future of abandonware. Many titles that might have been abandoned are now sold for profit by whoever holds the rights to them. More often than not, it isn’t the original developer. The potential for profit from old games gives owners a reason to fight for their property.
GOG’s success also highlights the illegality of abandonware. The only difference between what’s on GOG and what’s on Abandonia is the threat of a lawsuit. Some justifications, like age or incompatibility with modern systems, no longer seem as strong.
Abandonware Is Illegal
But you probably won’t get into trouble for downloading an old game, firing it up in an emulator, and playing the heck out of it. If you’re unsure about how to do that, here’s a quick guide on running old games on Windows 10.
The issues and gray areas of abandonware legality won’t change because of copyright law. And where possible, you should always seek out the paid version of an old game on a site like GOG.com.
Wondering which old games still hold up today? Check out our list of the best old PC games worth playing right now