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Abandonware

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Abandonware is computer software of which the copyright is no longer able to legally be enforced, because the company that owned the rights to the intellectual property went into liquidation, or shut down, without selling or transferring ownership of that copyright to another company.

Enforcement of copyright

Abandonware's copyright is frequently not defended, and proponents of abandonware argue that it is more ethical to make copies of such software than new software that still sells. Some who are ignorant of copyright law have incorrectly taken this to mean that abandonware is legal to distribute; no software is old enough for its copyright to have expired, and even in cases where the original company no longer exists, the rights still belong to someone.

Transfer of this software is still technically unlawful in most jurisdictions (except in cases of owner dissolution) as the copyright is still in effect. Abandonware changes hands based on the presumption that the time and money that a copyright holder would have to spend enforcing the copyright is greater than any money the holder would earn selling software licenses. Often the availability of abandonware on the internet is related to the willingness of copyright holders to defend their copyrights. For example, unencumbered emulators and games for Colecovision are markedly easier to find on the internet than unencumbered emulators and games for Mattel Intellivision in large part because there is still a company that makes money by selling Intellivision games while no such company exists for the Colecovision.

Companies do sometimes voluntarily relinquish copyright on software, putting it into the public domain, or re-license it as freeware or open source. id Software is notable as an early proponent of this practice, releasing older titles under an open source license. Another example is Amstrad, who support emulation and free distribution of ZX Spectrum hardware ROMs and software. The transfer of public domain or free software is perfectly legal, distinguishing it from abandonware. However, relinquishing copyright is uncommon - the copyright ownership of all portions is often unclear, creating difficulties in open-sourcing, and there is rarely an economic incentive to do so. Also, limited time promotional free downloads are often mistaken for a proper freeware release.

Old copyrights that are still of value

A common misconception is that "abandonware" is synonymous with "old warez", that is, any software older than a certain threshold (a common one being five years). This is not always the case, as some software companies (like Apogee) still offer many of their older titles for sale and actively pursue those who illegally offer them. Atari 2600 games are commonly distributed on the internet based on the presumption that no one would buy a primitive Atari game. However, mobile phone manufacturers have often bought the rights to publish these games, which can be made to work well on newer programmable mobile phones and smart phones.

Some publishers argue that all abandonware distribution is harmful, whether it is still possible to buy the game or not. The reasoning is that because of the success companies like Nintendo and Activision have had in releasing old games for newer platforms like the GameCube, Game Boy Advance and the PlayStation 2, all abandonware has potential value, and that distributing it free on the internet decreases the profits to be had from a legal rerelease.

Major games made available

The following formerly retail games have been made available for free download by their copyright holders for various reasons, often as publicity for a forthcoming sequel or compilation release.

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