Brass Lantern
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Warez, Abandonware, and the Software Industry

by Stephen Granade


What does it mean to own software? When I buy a game, what can and can't I do with it? Does illegal copying of software really hurt anyone? If a company no longer sells a game, should I be able to download a copy of it?

Not too long ago, most people would never have given any of these questions a thought. But as computer use has spread, and with it the use of software, these questions have gained in currency.

The battles over software include many combatants. The software companies are trying to stop the illegal copying of their products. The abandonware users skirt along the border of legality, sometimes obtaining permission for their actions, oftentimes not; in the meantime, they try to distance themselves from the warez crowd as much as possible. The warez users are the anarchists of the bunch, in effect saying, "Sure, what we're doing is illegal. So?"

The battles are over control; specifically, control of intellectual property rights. The creators of software have control over their creations by means of copyright and trademarks; users of warez and abandonware sidestep that control for their own ends.

Intellectual property rights are more nebulous than traditional property rights. If I own something, it's easy to see the harm if my rights regarding it are infringed: I have lost something tangible. Intellectual property rights deal with intangibles, and as with all intangibles it's harder to see the direct harm. If I copy a game you wrote, you still have the code and can sell your game. What exactly have you lost?

These issues have become increasingly important with the advent of easy digital copying and the ready distribution network that is the Internet. If intellectual property laws are the pipes which help bring money to the creators, those pipes are springing leaks all over. Napster made it easy to download songs you don't "own". With Gnutella you can find plenty of software and music that you'd otherwise have to buy. Hundreds of Napster-like clones have sprung up following its demise. Websites have the latest and greatest games, as well as the old and hard-to-find ones, available for free downloading.

While the legal arguments regarding pirated software and abandonware are clear-cut, the moral ones are more muddied. Warez users, software companies, abandonware users: all have their own take on the subject.

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