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There's a lot of games out there whose original creators have long gone out of business. How (if at all) do these enter the Public Domain, and how can you tell? Are there other kinds of abandon ware?

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FYI - This kind of question really doesn't require CW. – user113 Jul 8 '10 at 21:10
If it were as simple as the answer you provided.. see my comment there. – user56 Jul 8 '10 at 21:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Just because the title has been "abandoned" doesn't mean that you can download it without worrying about copyright.

Video games in the public domain are very rare. It takes at least 50-70 years for a game to enter the public domain, and even the oldest games aren't really this old (Tennis for 2 is all). It doesn't happen automatically if the company goes out of business or anything like that. The only other way a game can enter the public domain is for the copyright holder to explicitly state that it is in the public domain, and that doesn't happen too often.

So, effectively, the answer is that the game is almost certainly not in the public domain. Count on it still being under copyright.

(I am not a lawyer, do not take this as legal advice)

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But that's exactly what I was asking, how do you know whether games are actually free to download? This goes especially for games like Doom which are practically half-copyrighted. – user56 Jul 8 '10 at 21:19
DOOM is a special case, as the source code is availble from the original developpers under the GNU-GPL license. This means it is still fully copyrighted, however, you are allowed to do certain actions as long as you adhere to the conditions of the GNU-GPL license. – alexanderpas Jul 8 '10 at 21:33
@Arda - the only way to know is that the owner of the rights explicitly communicated about it. – Gnoupi Jul 8 '10 at 21:48
Just because something is freely available does not mean it's in the public domain -- they are two very distinct concepts. Some publishers do release their older titles for free download, but they also frequently place restrictions on where and how you can get them. Others, like id, release source -- but typically not assets (levels, textures, etc.) -- as a means of allowing other developers to keep a project living on past its natural "shelf-life." No umbrella can cover them all, and with jurisdictional differences, you can't count on a site like this to give you sound legal advice. – John Rudy Jul 8 '10 at 21:55
In fact copyright expires 70 years after the death of the longest living author if the copyright lies with natural persons, and 99 years after publication if it is a legal person, i.e. a company that holds the copyright. These limits are valid at most places due to international treaties. – txwikinger Jul 9 '10 at 1:14

At this stage, the game has to be released into the public domain by the copyright holders. There is a distinction between public domain and freeware, but Wikipedia's list of commercial video games released as freeware is probably where you'll want to look for freely available old commercial games.

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The site listed in this answer appears to have gone down or is unreachable. – Robotnik Oct 13 at 3:00
Thanks @Robotnik; I've updated the answer to point to a Wikipedia page. – JamesGecko Oct 13 at 17:30

To put it simply, it isn't.

There are a very, very few games first published in the US prior to 1977 without a copyright notice, or first published in the US prior to 1989 with neither notice nor copyright registration. Some of those early games are things like Spacewar for the PDP-1 or Star Trek for the Sigma 7.

For the most part, games published in the United States are copyrighted for 95 years from publication. This means that the first commercial non-arcade video games will enter the public domain in the US on January 1, 2073, when copyright on the early Atari 2600 games expires.

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