Legal Opinion: Abandonware is the best argument for DRM you’ll ever read

Dune 2

By on February 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Do you remember the Amiga? No? It was, for almost a good decade, the flag-bearer of the Glorious PC Master Race. The Amiga was competing with the NES, SNES, Master System, and Mega Drive—all at once. Against these consoles, the Commodore Amiga had the supreme gameplay, sound, and graphics capabilities, because Nintendon’t (I’m so clever).

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Commodore made a series of downright stupid decisions, and lost their entire grip on the home PC market. Had it gone differently, you could have been reading this on the Amiga operating system Workbench, rather than Windows. Now, your only views to past greatness are Ebay, YouTube, and emulated abandonware.

This sums up why we need DRM quite nicely. Tis a tale of obsolete hardware, abandoned software, and loose morals.

Abandonware and the greater good

The Amiga was one of the original platforms for the genre-starting Dune 2. Yet your best chance to play this today is to illegally download a DOS version from one of the “abandonware” websites. Not that I’m condoning such actions—just giving the facts—you’d be hard pressed to find a working Amiga copy in 2013 (there’s an online emulator here, too… I have no idea of its legal status).

Abandonware is a catch-all term for when publishers stop caring. No more profit comes from the game, so it gets dropped. Sales aren’t made, and copyright isn’t enforced. Publishers turn a blind eye, and websites are “allowed” to offer illegal downloads in plain sight.

This abandonment is used to justify abandonware (hence the name). While downloaders recognise their actions are technically illegal, they claim it’s a victimless crime.

First is the claim that playing abandonware doesn’t hurt anyone. The publisher isn’t offering the game for sale, and so you didn’t take away from sales. When you download Dune 2, your actions won’t be used as the centrepiece of Ubisoft’s anti-piracy rants.

Second is the claim that without “archiving”, the games will simply be lost to history. If EA dismantled Westwood, and no one bothers to sell Dune 2, how else will you play this classic?

Both these arguments have a grain of truth. That’s what makes them so compelling, on first glance. However, abandonware is illegal, and we need DRM to stop it—for the good of gaming.

Do you want games to live forever?

Justifying abandonware assumes that no market for old games will exist in the future. This, however, has been caused more by retailing methods than anything else. In days past—you may not remember—you’d ride to the local store on your penny farthing, hand over half your weekly earnings of two dollars and one cent (in coinage), and walk out with an Amiga game in a box the size of a large cereal carton. The large boxes, of course, were to occupy shelf space, for this is how games were sold in the Dark Ages.

The problem, though, was that stores had to maintain inventory turnover. Keeping your store stocked costs money. Old games quickly become discounted in a desperate attempt to clear inventory to make way for the next flavour of the month. Popularity is fleeting. Games that leave the store, never return.

Online distribution changes this. It costs but bandwidth to keep an online store stocked. You have no pressure to clear inventory, because you have none.

And digital games can have extreme shelf lives. Doom still sells on Steam. The oldest games at Good Old Games were released in the late 80’s—Police Quest, King’s Quest, and Space Quest. These continue to sell today, despite coming from a time with a distinct lack of imagination for naming.

Only DRM will make this possible

If online stores can stock so many old games and charge for it, what stops them? Obsoleteness. The reason you can only find the DOS version of Dune 2 is that we don’t play Amigas anymore. Even if you had an original game disk, it wouldn’t work in that PC floppy drive you threw in the trash ten years ago.

And what stops obsoleteness? Money. As long as a business case can be justified for keeping old games working on modern systems, they will be. But if they don’t earn anything, they’ll be dropped… abandoned when it becomes convenient. Patching and porting costs money.

So what ensures money? You know where I need to go… DRM. When you’re selling such old games, profits are low. Most of Good Old Game’s stock sells for $5.99.

The argument that “piracy does not cost sales” gets weaker the lower the profit. While you may correctly scoff at Ubisoft’s claims that piracy cost a hundred bajillion dollars of Far Cry 3 sales, it’s harder to claim that an abandonware website offering Shadow Warrior for free didn’t cost Good Old Games $5.99. With prices well below impulse buy level, every Google search for an old game that leads to an abandonware website becomes a lost sale.

Stripped of all its hyperbolic, negative connotations, DRM is simply a means for asserting ownership. You cannot sell something you cannot own, and this is the original point of copyright—that the law protects ownership rights, so the owner can sell and profit, free of unreasonable competition. However, it’s hard to sell a $5 game when you’re competing against freely available downloads. In turn, that means it’s hard to make a case for patching games to be compatible with current systems.

DRM gives publishers the ownership rights that copyright always intended, and hence the small profit needed to continue to offer games past the point when games have previously been abandoned. With DRM, we’ll no longer lose games to abandonment.

62 comments (Leave your own)

I will pose the following scenario. Game has always online DRM of some sort or periodic online checks. Company owning said game goes under for whatever reason and doesn’t sell the rights to it or can’t due to third party lock in from the DRM or other tech in the game. Official DRM removal patch never released as the company no longer exists.

Legit game no longer works. No where for potential new players to buy it. So now what? The only truly legal option here is nobody can play it, even those who have purchased it.

Also Good Old Games only sell stuff without DRM as far as I know.


I’d like to counter this with the fact that DRM also means having to maintain authentication servers. If a publisher (most notably EA) decides that it’s not worth maintaining said servers, you won’t be able to play those games in the future when you want to reinstal them.

This is where comes in. By offering titles that are free of DRM, there’s no need to maintain any authentication servers (which, in turn, means less hassle for reinstalling games in the future).

Also, the ownership of some old titles is up in the air. An example of this is Croc and Croc 2 on PC. Both the publisher (Fox Interactive) and developer (Argonaut Software) are dead and the titles are very hard to find (even on eBay). The up in the air nature of who owns the rights to those games makes it impossible to list on or any other DD service. In short, your only real option to get the games is through piracy or abandonware sites.

EDIT: First point ninja’d by Otto.

Patrick Vuleta

The cynic in me says GOG sells games without DRM because they need to compete… just about every one of their titles can be had for free. Sure it is a good selling point for them, but I bet they’d love it if the abandonware websites were closed down.

I think the scenario you posed is valid, though, but the severity of the DRM is also a whole other issue. I’m not so sure abandonware websites have a good role as an insurance policy… as the support they give for new systems can’t be guaranteed.

Meanwhile we have something like XCOM which has changed hands four times and the originals are still offered on Steam. This is due to the exact trend I wrote in the article… XCOM is bankable, so will forever be available (at least as far out as I can imagine). So there’s good outliers and bad outliers.


This article makes little sense to me. Are you arguing around current abandonware titles or the potential for current new releases to one day become abandonware? I agree completely that Digital Distribution is a good thing to stop Abandonware from being a thing (though it’s clearly not perfect as titles can still be removed like Fahrenheit from Steam) but that doesnt’ change the fact that tons of decades old titles have already been abandoned and these are the only ways to play these games and I don’t feel that’s unfair.

You also seem to imply that piracy is the only thing that causes games to become abandonware (you say why should devs keep a game updated if you can get it free elsewhere) yet all current abandonware like Dune 2 would beg to differ given piracy wasn’t the force it is today back then.

I agree completely that once a game comes back from the dead it’s no longer abandonware and thus it becomes piracy if people still go after free copies but devs/pubs need to take the first steps to bringing the game back whether via gog or something else (were you trying to say that many still consider the games available on GoG as abandonware? if so I agree that that’s terrible).

Again I might not understand what exactly you’re arguing. Are you saying that we should stop using all currently available abandonware titles in same vain hope that pubs might then release them on gog? Because that would be silly imo, these titles have been abandoned, pubs wouldn’t care let alone know if people still downloading abandonware suddenly stopped because it might lead the pubs to rerelease the games.


Man, ive still got my old Amiga Commodore 64… Still got about 200 games for it too, but the screen doesn’t work any more :( would love to set that up for my daughter when shes older.
It came from the desert scared the shit out of me as a young boy… that and Road Raider, with those glowly zombie guys…
Good times. Damn good times.


i would agree only if i could purchase those old games and have the work flawlessly on they current system on which i got it. when i dusted off my old theme park cd months ago, to get it to run i had to trawl throguht then net for half a day at least. get dos box, configure that, then find the exact cycle speed that the game could run at (still too fast year went by in 3 seconds).

I like many gamers i suppose have got old boxes full of some of my old favourites. eg quest for glory, sim city, biohazard, dukenukem dn3d and those same engine clones, syndicate. ect ect. the only thing that stops me from playing them again is that it can take a day to get up and running, by that time my whim to play it one more time has gone.

Now if i can buy these old games from steam/origin/ubi whatever for $1-$5 and have them run straight away with no fucking around i would probably purchase them again, but considering to play sim tower again i had to find a copy of win 3.1 and install that and then run that throguht dosbox with cd drivers installed if i had to pay and still do all that fucking around they wouldnt get once cent off me.

BTW i have all these games and win 3.1 i just dont think that the floppys would even work anymore.

-sorry for the rant



I have Croc 2 on PC original discs. Does that make me special? :3


Just like the ads you get regarding piracy on DVDs, DRM only affects those that actually purchase the program. The manufacturer has tried and
convicted the customer as a thief that can not be trusted. Meanwhile there are any number of sites that the software, movie, etc can be downloaded from that the DRM has been removed from. In short treat the customer like a thief and you do not have the right to complain when they steal from you, especially with the contempt of some of the drm forcefully installed(like root kits)

It does not have to be this way. Companies are making money without DRM. The witcher series and every game sold by GOG, something you seem to have avoided in your article.

Personally I prefer a bought game to one acquired via other methods. My steam library and numerous games disks prove this. Reward me, don’t treat me as a thief

Patrick Vuleta

This article makes little sense to me. Are you arguing around current abandonware titles or the potential for current new releases to one day become abandonware? I agree completely that Digital Distribution is a good thing to stop Abandonware from being a thing (though it’s clearly not perfect as titles can still be removed like Fahrenheit from Steam) but that doesnt’ change the fact that tons of decades old titles have already been abandoned and these are the only ways to play these games and I don’t feel that’s unfair.

Can’t do anything about the old titles because the cat’s out of the bag. But that’s no reason to just throw up our arms and just accept that the only way to have access to tomorrow’s games once they stop being fully supported is to rely on piracy.

I’d rather EA keep Mass Effect in Origin for years rather than palm it off to hackers. I don’t really understand why that would ever be a good thing, but is the direct result of no DRM.

1. EA stops supporting it, abandons it.
2. Only way to play it is by relying on pirates.
3. No guarantee of it staying current.

If EA has a guaranteed exclusive revenue from Mass Effect due to keeping tight DRM control, then they won’t abandon it in the first place.



When did you first get it? If you got it when it was new then you’re not really that special (much like if I bought it today through I’m talking about buying it now given that both publisher and developer are dead and nobody seems to have the rights to the games anymore.


Patrick Vuleta,

There still comes a time where it’s not economically viable in the eyes of a publisher to maintain the DRM authentication servers for titles. EA is notorious for closing off MP for titles that don’t even make their 2 year anniversary. What’s to stop them from turning off the authentication servers when they feel that it’s not economically viable to keep them running?

EDIT: In a similar vein, will MS stop supporting activation of Windows XP when its support ends later this year (and, by extension, turn off the authentication servers related to XP activation)?

Patrick Vuleta

Heh, don’t they do that just to release sports games which are functionally the exact same game but with a different celebrity sponsor?

I’d say that’s no big loss. :p

Windows is in the same boat. Windows 7 is an objectively better OS, so not sure why anyone’s still wanting to use XP… there has to be a market for the product in the first place. There is still a big market for old games… not so much clapped-out operating systems.

As for other titles, I’d hope that they switch to another form of DRM.

For multiplayer generally… it’s really very hard to play any old game multipler. Try to find a game of SWAT 4 today. There are other things in play other than publisher profits… player interest is to blame too.


Patrick Vuleta,

Personally I don’t think this has anything to do with DRM but instead distribution channels. Back in the day you could only buy games via retail, once retail stopped stocking your game for whatever reason that was it, your revenue was gone because there were no other avenue’s to continue selling your product. Thank to Digital Distribution however ( not DRM) this is no longer an issue.


Otay. :( I thought merely having a copy when the game is now completely rare would make one special.

Patrick Vuleta

Doesn’t that go hand-in-hand with DRM, though? Just say your game is so old you’re limited to selling it for $2 a copy. At that price, you need enough volume to make it worthwhile. The viability of that I’d assume would be hurt bad by having your game freely downloadable on ten different abandonware sites. That’s mostly where the DRM comes into things, in my mind.

Hence while abandonware claims to be making games available for long periods of time, they’re also hurting the viability of selling games at razor thin margins.


Patrick VuletaIf EA has a guaranteed exclusive revenue from Mass Effect due to keeping tight DRM control, then they won’t abandon it in the first place,

I am in the rare position of agreeing with exe3. I don’t think EA retaining an exclusive revenue stream on a title is justification enough that they will support a game in perpetuity. In 10 years time it may become prohibitively expensive for EA to continue maintaining compatibility of Mass Effect (for example), particularly in comparison the relatively low income it will generate. That is why GoG has carved such an excellent niche for themselves (plus engaging with indie devs pretty nicely too), they employ people whose sole job is to make sure that those games are compatible with modern systems. Over the last few months they have added Windows 8 and OSX to many titles.

Where is the incentive for EA, a publisher, to hire people to make their old games work instead of say more marketing people to push another iteration of Medal of Honor?


I’d like to think that at $2 the vast vast majority of people would buy it, especially if supported properly of which abandonware wouldn’t be, or at least not to the same extent.

Also while I don’t know their sales figures I think gog shows that DRM isn’t needed for digital distribution.

Finally does it matter if their profit margins are razer thin? You yourself in the article said that having these games up online costs nothing but bandwidth so what harm is there for keeping them up anyway? It’s a fact that eventually, one day, you will stop selling copies because theoretically everyone will already have the game, would that be a reason to remove it from sale online?


Why would anyone care about the legality of downloading a 20 year old game like Dune 2? Command & Conquer and Red Alert are freeware.

As for Dune 2 still being available, there’s numerous faithful remakes that run on the latest Windows (or straight out of a browser). The Golden Path even has modernized multiplayer/skirmish gameplay where you can actually select multiple units at a time.


Patrick Vuleta: You are a muppet

Patrick Vuleta

The first two C&C’s are freeware, Dune 2 is not.

As to why would anyone care… there is an awful lot of interest in such an old title around the net. ;) While the publishers don’t seem to care in this case… shouldn’t developers/publishers in similar positions have the first say in what happens?

I just can’t agree with the prevailing opinion that just because something is old means it’s common property. In Dune 2′s case, I’m inclined to believe that it’s more a case of the cat got out of the bag due to the popularity of the game and is now too hard to put back. But popularity does not dictate ownership.

Patrick Vuleta

That is why GoG has carved such an excellent niche for themselves (plus engaging with indie devs pretty nicely too), they employ people whose sole job is to make sure that those games are compatible with modern systems. Over the last few months they have added Windows 8 and OSX to many titles.

Sure, but they’d earn even more money under what I’m proposing… I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. :P

GOG isn’t entirely do-as-you-please, either. The contract you enter into with them when you buy their games states you are absolutely prohibited from doing anything other than copying it to your machine. Not in those exact terms, mind you, but that you must respect the wishes of the publishers, which mostly include EA and such forth.

They just trust you to live up to it, which is a separate point in itself. But it does not change that GOG is not supporting abandonware. They’re not comrades in arms, so to speak. :P

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