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Open Source Games

Licensing an Abandonware Game? 148

Posted by Soulskill
from the rolling-the-dice dept.
WolverineOfLove writes "I'm recreating a 1980s abandonware game with copyrights that have been seemingly unused for the past 18 years. The situation is detailed further in a Slashdot journal entry I just wrote, but in short: Is it worth dealing with all the copyrights and paying money if I want to recreate an abandonware title as an open source game? I know there are legal implications to certain decisions I might make, but there is a real possibility that this game's copyright holder will do nothing with the rights, and I'd much prefer preserving it for others than letting it fade away."
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Licensing an Abandonware Game?

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  • Contact the Owners (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Pikoro (844299) <init&init,sh> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:40AM (#31462344) Homepage Journal
    Contact the owners and ask them if they mind. You might be surprised.
  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:42AM (#31462346) Homepage Journal

    Make your new game. Don't use any exact names or words from the original. By all means select your names so that people know this is a successor to the original.

    After all, open office exists along side microsoft office. Afterstep came after nextstep. You need a name like "afterstep" so that people know what you are on about.

  • Patents (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bbqsrc (1441981) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:49AM (#31462376) Homepage
    As long as it isn't covered by a dreaded software patent, you should be fine. Software patents need to die in a fire.
    • Re:Patents (Score:4, Insightful)

      by the_humeister (922869) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:42AM (#31462556)

      If he's trying to recreate a game from the 1980s, any relevant patents would have already expired by now.

      • by bbqsrc (1441981)
        That isn't to say a patent for the very same thing hasn't been reapplied for in the time that has passed.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mysidia (191772)

        Not necessarily. It depends on the issue date of the patent.

        In particular, if issuance of the patent was delayed, it may be issued for longer than 20 years.

        For instance, if the patent was filed for in 1994 and issued in 2000, it could be 7 more years before it will expire, PLUS a number of additional years, according to the issuance delay.

        Also, some special types of patents (as in gov' patents) can get terms much longer than 20 years.

        Assuming is not good here, unless you have looked up the patent

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Threni (635302)

      What about copyright? You might rapidly discover that `abandonware` is a meaningless term legally; not only that, but that a company owns the rights to the game and will come after you for a lot of money should your game before profitable for them to do so.

      • Re:Patents (Score:5, Informative)

        by bbqsrc (1441981) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:53AM (#31462590) Homepage
        Abandonware can mean that the company that owned the copyrights no longer exists, and the ownership of the copyright is in limbo. Look at Transport Tycoon for example. The copyright was transferred to a company from a company that no longer exists to a company that no longer exists, and thus nobody can defend the copyright to the game. This is the epitome of abandonware and it's what allowed OpenTTD to exist.
        • by u38cg (607297)
          Somebody can, though they may very well not be aware of it. If a company is liquidated, assets that are not sold off or transferred to creditors will be returned to shareholders, or can in theory revert to the state, though this is pretty unusual. I suppose in theory if you consistently over a period of time then acted as if you owned the copyright, and went unchallenged, you could claim title in the same way as with land or abandoned property.
        • by Kjella (173770)

          Or more practically, when there's no value in the company the rest is sold off to some liquidation company that has liquidated all the asset (like down to furniture and office supplies) and don't know or/and don't care that they got any IP rights. I imagine someone would put up 1$ for the remaining assets and the bankruptcy board will "have to" take it rather than 0$, if not it might be a good business model. You don't need much of a hit rate to earn a little net.

    • by westlake (615356) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @10:39AM (#31463840)

      As long as it isn't covered by a dreaded software patent, you should be fine. Software patents need to die in a fire.

      The gamer-geek will be pursuing other game assets which may be independently licensed and legally protected: character designs and props, background art, music and audio effects, story, script, dialog, vocal performance, and so on.

      I've heard music composed and performed for the LucasArts adventures used in Disney television animation.

  • by C4st13v4n14 (1001121) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:50AM (#31462380)
    These guys have done exactly what you're aiming to do. You should probably get on their forums and talk to them for some insight. You should also check out their remake, it's a really good game! Warzone 2100 [wz2100.net]
    • I can second talking to other projects that have done similar things, such as the team behind UQM* or OpenTTD**.

      * http://sc2.sourceforge.net/ [sourceforge.net]
      ** http://www.openttd.org/en/ [openttd.org]

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jonwil (467024)

        UQM is different in that it was an actual open-sourcing of the code to Star Control 2.

        The code is open source, the assets are free-as-in-beer (as in free to distribute with the game but not free to modify)

        Only things they cant use are some music tracks and cinematics they dont own the rights to plus the actual "Star Control" name (which the publisher owns)

    • by zaydana (729943)

      Warzone 2100 is different because it was the people who owned the copyright who released the code first for other people to work on, not other people asking the owners to release the copyright.

      You're right about the remake being good though. It was one of my favourite games back in the day, and I was incredibly surprised to find I could download it and now play it on my mac without any hitches, probably smoother than the original ran in windows.

      • Yeah, but if I remember correctly, at one point Pumpkin studio's (or the new company that bought them) released all the source once the community asked for it. All they kept was things like in-game movies etc... which were owned by third parties so could not be open sourced.

        And I also have to agree that the remake is good. Not only is it more stable than the original, but they have made improvements to gameplay. It was one of my favourite games back in the day as well, and it's cool now that I can play it

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      No. No no no no no. Do you know how many hours of my life I have lost to that game? You son of a bitch! Why would you do this to me?! T_T

  • by bobdotorg (598873) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:58AM (#31462398)

    What would 3DRealms do if someone just went ahead and wrote / released an open source version of Duke Nukem Forever.

  • Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by urusan (1755332) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:07AM (#31462436)

    I don't understand why you want to create an exact port of the original game.

    If you want to preserve the original game, then use an emulator like DOSBox on the original executables. It will save you a load of time.

    If you want to popularize the game, then contact the owners to see if they'll sell it to you or put it under an open license. That way you can redistribute the game for use on emulators without legal worries.

    If you want to make something new, then you should really put your energies into a new game inspired by the old one.

    By the way, I once made a game that was a clone of a game on a portable system (with the intent of adding Internet play). It was an unexpectedly massive undertaking and by the end I was wondering why I was pouring so much energy into a derivative project that I might have to worry about lawsuits over when I finished it. It's really not worth it. You'll feel better in the end if you spend that time making something new that you can proudly take credit for.

    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Ihmhi (1206036) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @09:59AM (#31463606)

      I'd imagine he wants to make an exact replica of the game for the same reason people build Warhammer battlefields, model train sets, etc. by hand.

      Yeah sure, there's something out there you can already buy and get working, but I bet I could make a really good (if not 1:1) replica by myself!

    • by westlake (615356)

      If you want to preserve the original game, then use an emulator like DOSBox on the original executables. It will save you a load of time.

      Emulation has its limits.

      The LucasArts adventure The Dig was to have been "high defintition" for its day - until budget cuts ruled that out.

      The game has a magnificent sound track and solid vocal performances.

      The background art is elegant and effective. Less so when scaled up to the 21" wide screen.

      The low res sprite animation was a disappoint from Day One.

      The game was s

  • SDINAL (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fm6 (162816) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:09AM (#31462444) Homepage Journal

    I know there are legal implications to certain decisions I might make, but...

    But nothing. You're asking a legal question, you need to go to a legal expert. Slashdotters are not legal experts, they just think they are, and their advice is worse than useless.

    • Re:SDINAL (Score:5, Informative)

      by TechForensics (944258) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @06:30AM (#31462880) Homepage Journal

      I know there are legal implications to certain decisions I might make, but...

      But nothing. You're asking a legal question, you need to go to a legal expert. Slashdotters are not legal experts, they just think they are, and their advice is worse than useless.

      As a supposed legal expert (yes, IAAL), I can advise that if it cannot be positively determined that copyright is not in force (and after only 18 years it seems impossible that it would not be) then yes, without permission you could be sued, very likely successfully-- but then, the copyright holder may not wish to sue, and as another post noted, even be supportive. Be sure to get that expression of support in writing. (And be sure the author and copyright holder are one and the same.)

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Seeking bona fide legal advice would definitely be worthwhile, but airing the idea in the community and talking to others who have remade games is also a sound policy, since other advice and issues may be raised. I think this is a case of 'and' rather than 'exclusive or'!
    • Re:SDINAL (Score:5, Funny)

      by syousef (465911) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @07:45AM (#31463082) Journal

      But nothing. You're asking a legal question, you need to go to a legal expert. Slashdotters are not legal experts, they just think they are, and their advice is worse than useless.

      Goes to show what you know! We think we're experts at EVERYTHING, not just law. And we're pedantic and petty! We know it better than you do and your spelling sux and your mother ate worms! And we're abusive. I'll demonstrate: Get it right, loser!

      (Anyone who mods this as anything other than humour is a complete moron).

      • by fm6 (162816)

        (Anyone who mods this as anything other than humour is a complete moron).

        First you give us that delicious bit of irony, then you go and spoil it!

      • by tehcyder (746570)
        Mod parent non-humourous. Oh, wait...
    • by loufoque (1400831)

      Legal experts usually have little knowledge with such things, however. They very often unnecessarily advise caution to hide their lack of expertise.

    • by Dogtanian (588974)

      I know there are legal implications to certain decisions I might make, but...

      But nothing. You're asking a legal question, you need to go to a legal expert. Slashdotters are not legal experts, they just think they are, and their advice is worse than useless.

      Slashdotters think that they can logically guess the way the law works and/or that the law works the way it ought (logically) to work despite the fact that the only way to know how the law works is... to actually find out how the law works, and that it isn't always logical or consistent.

      The other thing I've come across is that when you point out the law doesn't work in that idealised way, it'll be assumed that you endorse the (arguably) illogical, inconsistent and/or faulty way it *does* work. (*)

      Not at all

      • by fm6 (162816)

        You're right on all counts. But you've overlooked the biggest reason people get into trouble: they're just plain out of their depth. Law is full of complicated principles and concepts that take years to master. Even if you know the basics--and many folks who think they do are just full of it--you're still not prepared for most legal issues.

        It's like those people who learn a little math and decide they can prove that pi is a rational number. Except it seems to be a lot easier to get away with bogus law

  • Get permission! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Whether or not you think the copyright "no longer matters" is irrelevant. If you do not get legal permission it is breaking the law pure and simple.

    See the case of "Alien Abuse", an iPhone port of Abuse by defunct Crack.com. The authors released the code and graphics as public domain, but the whole game (including SFX) was redistributed without legal permission. This resulted in a nasty dispute with former Crack.com founder Dave T. Taylor, and the game being removed from the iPhone app store.

    The lesson I

    • by LocalH (28506)

      The authors released the code and graphics as public domain, but the whole game (including SFX) was redistributed without legal permission. This resulted in a nasty dispute with former Crack.com founder Dave T. Taylor, and the game being removed from the iPhone app store.

      That sounds a bit ambiguous. Do you mean the original game author released it as PD, or the remake authors? If the former, then the original author can go jump off a cliff. If the latter, then that makes a whole lot more sense.

      • That sounds a bit ambiguous. Do you mean the original game author released it as PD, or the remake authors? If the former, then the original author can go jump off a cliff. If the latter, then that makes a whole lot more sense.

        You emphasized the wrong bits, and therefore seem to have missed the point. Here, allow me...

        The authors released the code and graphics as public domain, but the whole game (including SFX) was redistributed without legal permission.

        Now do you understand why there was a problem?

  • Ask the ScummVM guys (Score:4, Interesting)

    by meist3r (1061628) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:15AM (#31462472)
    They re-released several abandonware adventure games after corresponding with the original programmers. They even got source code and permission to use all the assets for freeware release. I agree with most other posts here that you should try contacting the original developers first (might take some digging, try to get a hold of the original production manager). If they refuse you can still salvage most content and rename the characters to stay out of trouble. Most other projects don't make that effort of asking and are then shot down right at the finish line (look at basically every fan remake out there). Maybe you can also ask the people that did Zak McKracken 2 (zak2.org) they probably got some advice on how to handle someone else's IP w/o getting screwed.
  • My Advice (Score:2, Interesting)

    by AndrewFenn (1449703)

    Should I approach the copyright holder and purchase a license, or attempt to buy the rights outright and transfer them to the open source project/myself/the original creator?

    If the game company has gone bankrupt it might be a situation where the company was liquidated and its assets sold. If that is that case then the company no longer owns the copyright.

    In any case I doubt it is worth purchasing the copyright. You state that you will be remaking this game from scratch which means purchasing someone else's

  • imo (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:27AM (#31462516)

    imo instead of bionic commando it should be bionic fartmando. instead of having a bionic arm you eat cans of super beans and fart to kill enemies. you also fart to jump, so the amount of beans you eat means that your jumps are limited. so to clear levels in the best way you have to conserve your farts and figure out how to do the least jumping. anyway bionic fartmando. code it up and i'll buy it. also i'll buy a second copy for my son marticock.

    WSL3

  • Give it a try (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:39AM (#31462544)

    The people you want to talk to, by the way, are the publishers, not the developers. In some rare cases the developers own the copyright, but in 99.9% of cases games are works for hire and the publisher owns the copyright.

    Now, as to what they'll do? Well who knows? There have been varied results. You may well find them very amenable to the idea and they may want little or no money. You may find they flat out say "No," or don't even respond. However you don't know until you try.

    A recent example of a success in that regard is Stardock just got the license to distribute and update Total Annihilation. The CEO is a big fan of it and talked to Atari and got the rights to sell it on Impulse, as well as the rights to update it with new features. So this sort of thing can happen.

    However there have been failures too. In one case, Xcom I think, it turned out the original source code had been lost so the publisher couldn't license it out, even if they wanted to since they didn't have it.

    You don't know until you try what will happen. However, do be prepared that they may blow you off. One thing that may improve your chances is if you have a solid plan for what you intend to do with it. Show them a business plan, more or less, that shows you have seriously thought out how you'd improve it and so on. They may be more likley to deal with someone they believe will make something rather than someone they think might just be playing around.

  • by Mendy (468439) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:59AM (#31462606)

    How about coding yours so that it loads resources it needs from a copy of the original game which you leave it up to the end-user to acquire? This is how Quake reimplementations work and ID don't seem to have complained about it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Pharmboy (216950)

      As someone pointed out, Quake opensourced the engine, not the content. More importantly, if the new game relied on the old game to load textures, etc., then you would have to be distributing the OLD game. This would likely violate the copyright, and open you up for even more lawsuits. Direct distribution of copyright content is worse than making your own version of it (which is often perfectly legal).

      • by Mendy (468439)

        As someone pointed out, Quake opensourced the engine, not the content.

        Indeed - which is why nQuake and others want you to provide pak1.pak from the full game to get textures and other content.

        • by Pharmboy (216950)

          And if you haven't bought the game, it is considered piracy. If you are sending it with your new game, it is considered copyright infringement. Not a good idea for a method of distributing your new game.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            And if you haven't bought the game, it is considered piracy. If you are sending it with your new game, it is considered copyright infringement. Not a good idea for a method of distributing your new game.

            You don't get it. The people who make games based on the Quake engine don't distribute the pak files with their release. Getting the pak file is left entirely up to the user, if they want to pirate it, buy it or whatever. The person distributing the game is not responsible for the choice of the end user, and

            • by Pharmboy (216950)

              I get it perfectly. The guy who is NOW trying to recreate a game can't exactly expect people to go provide their own *pak file, the game is abandoned, thus not available. The point isn't "who is liable", the point it, "it is illegal regardless of how you do it".

  • Remember, just because they haven't "done anything" with their copyright over the last 30 years, that doesn't mean they don't still have copyright. Or more importantly, that SOMEONE could still have the copyright, and that they might not be very nice.

    Writing any code on the basis of "they probably won't care" isn't a great idea, and other projects have been burned by that in the past.

    As said elsewhere in the comments, contact the owner or creator first. If it really is abandonware then he probable won't min

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tepples (727027)

      Or more importantly, that SOMEONE could still have the copyright, and that they might not be very nice.

      Then how does one go about locating this SOMEONE if the game's original publisher is defunct?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Patch86 (1465427)

        With difficulty, unfortunately. Asking the game's creators might be a good start, as they might have an idea of what happened to the rights- their company was bought by A, that company was bought by B, etc.

        If you try looking and after a reasonable amount of effort still can't locate anyone, then maybe just go for broke and press on with the project. At least you tried though.

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          If you try looking and after a reasonable amount of effort still can't locate anyone, then maybe just go for broke and press on with the project. At least you tried though.

          Admitting that you tried (but failed) to not break a law is not a good defence.

          "I tried to find somewhere to pay for the laptop before I finally just walked out of the shop with it under my arm" is equivalent to saying "Yes, I stole it."

          PS for the anti-IP brigade, I am not equating copyright breach with theft. It is an analogy.

  • Oh Look (Score:1, Redundant)

    by BarryNorton (778694)
    It's this thread again. Did something change since last time this was discussed?
    • by RoboRay (735839)

      Nope.

    • by Kasar (838340)
      Obama stated today that he would be pushing for stronger enforcement of current copyrights.
      In other words, no copyright reforms are coming anytime soon.
  • The main trouble you might run into and which many other projects have run into are naming conflicts. Publishers like to protect their trademarks, so any name that is a little to close to the original will give you a cease&desist, but those are mostly harmless, as you just need to change your project name then.

    Taking over gameplay ideas and concepts is however a non-issue, lots of games do that, even commercial ones.

    If you want to create a pixel-perfect replica using original artwork and stuff you shoul

  • by dudeX (78272) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:17AM (#31462652)

    First thing I did was emailed a few of the principal owners of the game, and told them about my intent, and asked about who holds the copyright and trademarks. I got the go ahead, with the caveat that another company owned the trademark to this particular game.

    I also searched the web to look at other projects based on remakes. It seems that the best way to handle remakes of abandownare games is to not to bother the company that made it (especially if they're big like EA or Activision). The unwritten rule seems to be if you don't bother them, they won't bother you. Otherwise, they'll just say no and might put the kibosh on the project.

    This should also be obvious, but don't sell the game. Just don't.

    I never finished the game I was remaking since writing the tools to make it got laboriously time consuming.

  • If you're worried about getting sued, start a for profit business and create your first piece of intellectual property. If you do everything correctly, the worst that could happen would be the assets of the company being seized. So, you lose your investment in the form of whatever time and money you put into the venture, but you don't get your personal bank account frozen, in the event of a judgment.

    You could always go the non-profit route, but ironically, non-profits typically cost more to start up a
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by timmarhy (659436)
      incorporate the company, float it on the stock exchange with a market cap of $1. sell i to some bum on the street for $1.5 and have him name you CIO,CFO and CEO. then when it all goes wrong your just an employee doing as you were told.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by gdshaw (1015745)

      IANAL, but this is a subject I've looked into. Limited liability can help greatly when you have acted in good faith, but it is unlikely to shield you if you have shown malice or willful blindness. This is especially true for very small companies that are effectively a vehicle for the acts of one person.

  • Rather than sending this to "Ask Slashdot", you ought to send it to "Ask a Lawyer" (prepare to pay).

  • Stop pissing around, slap a "z" on the end of the name, flip a few pixels around and ship the mofo.
  • At least try to contact people you think might own the copyright and the original authors. Save a copy of anything you send and any response. If you're sued, then you can prove you don't have any malicious intent and you actually tried to do right.

  • To create an "open source game", you're giving your customers a license but you would be given them a license for something you KNOW you don't own. You're setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Not only can the original copyright and/or patent holders come after you, but every single one of YOUR licensees could come after you for damages as well. Whether or not you charge a fee has absolutely no bearing on the matter. The real question you need to ask is not whether you'd be in the right or wrong but

  • Video game design is an art. So look for a nonprofit lawyers for the arts organization in your state.

    They will almost certainly be able to give you more informed legal advice than you will find on /., and some of them might be able to set you up with a pro bono attorney. Here's a list (from NY's Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts) of state arts law organizations:

    http://www.vlany.org/resources/vladirectory.php [vlany.org]

    (Btw, based on the handful of such organizations I've contacted, it seems that calling is often necessar

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