Old compact discs and computer hardware discarded in a trash bin.
Abandonware is any software still under copyright when the copyright owner either doesn't or can't enforce it. Regardless, since the copyright still exists, hosting and downloading abandonware generally counts as piracy in the US, making it illegal.

There are lots of “wares” when it comes to software: freeware, shareware, donationware, and more! You may have come across “abandonware” that just needs a simple click to download, but what does it mean for software to be abandonware? Is it legal?

What Is Abandonware, Exactly?

Abandonware is any software whose copyright has not lapsed, and all of the legal restrictions that apply to typical copyright are still in effect, yet the copyright holder isn’t currently enforcing the copyright. Such holders may be in one of several situations, such as:

  • The holder ceased to exist without ever transferring the copyright to another entity.
  • The holder is still in business, but they’re no longer selling the software and aren’t expending any time or money to defend their copyright.
  • It’s unclear who the current copyright holder is, making it impossible for anyone to buy, defend, or claim copyright.

Holders will normally do everything in their power to enforce the copyright (the laws and rights that determine who has the say when copying, disseminating, or using intellectual property). For example, if you wanted to make a new Mario video game, you’d have to get permission from Nintendo as the copyright holder for Mario and all of his games. If you don’t get permission, the holder, Nintendo in this case, has the right to take you to court. But that may not be the case with abandonware.

It isn’t always clear why copyright holders that are still in operation are passive toward their abandonware, either. One reason might be it would cost them money to enforce the copyright with no clear benefit. Whatever the reason, though, abandonware remains under copyright protection.

Abandonware vs. Freeware vs. Public Domain

Some forms of copyright pre-emptively give permission for what you’re allowed to do with the content without asking the copyright holder every time. Examples include freeware licenses, open source licenses, and Creative Commons licenses. However, none of these licenses apply to abandonware because the copyright holder has not granted any permissions like that.

Additionally, abandonware is not software that has passed into the public domain. If it were in the public domain, that’d mean anyone is free to do with that content whatever they wish. Disney famously built its empire by creating films based on public domain stories.

Abandonware Is Available on the Web

Despite laws blocking abandonware from being distributed, many websites exist that make abandonware available, typically focused on abandoned video games. Abandonware isn’t limited to video games, though. Old operating systems such as Windows 3.1 can be included too, and even old versions of productivity software. You’ll find all of that and more in online abandonware repositories.

These websites rationalize themselves by saying if not for them, such games would be lost to time, just as most early films have been lost. Another common claim is that abandonware doesn’t directly harm the copyright holder. They may even argue a moral imperative to host abandonware, claiming hosting is an act of preservation to prevent those titles from being lost.

Is It Legal to Download Abandonware?

So if you download abandonware, are you committing a crime? Different nations have specific laws regarding copyright and when it’s legal for you to copy or distribute software that’s still subject to copyright law. In most cases, though, hosting abandonware is considered illegal.

In the US, there are no laws using the term “abandonware,” but since what we think of as abandonware exists outside the public domain, its distribution meets the definition of software piracy, which is certainly illegal. Regardless of the specific circumstances, there’s no getting around this simple fact. Until the software enters the public domain or the copyright holder releases it under a new license that allows copying and distributing the program, it’s not legal to download or host abandonware.

Historically speaking, copyright infringement in the case of abandonware has rarely been pursued in court. Most websites taken down for copyrighted software, such as MegaUpload, were targeted for hosting new or modern games and programs that still hold significant market value. However, legal cases can’t be ruled out entirely; a company may for any reason gain a renewed interest in protecting its old copyrights.

Notably, there is a small exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protecting people who, for preservation purposes, reverse-engineer copy-protected software that’s been outmoded and no longer usable on modern hardware. However, it only applies to the act of preserving the software, not distributing it. Even if you don’t profit from it, copying and sharing abandonware still counts as copyright infringement.

Should You Download Abandonware?

While downloading and hosting abandonware is clearly not legal in the US, some people choose to do it anyway. However, there’s more to consider than just the legal implications.

For one thing, you have to think about security. The lack of regulation makes abandonware a field ripe for abuse. Creators of viruses and other malware may insert their payloads in abandonware, for example, knowing that the copyright holder won’t offer any way to verify your download hasn’t been tampered with.

Even if you somehow confirm an abandonware download is clean, it’s never a good idea to use it for any serious purpose like making money as part of a business. Abandonware has no support, so it comes with the same inherent risks as any software that has reached end-of-life customer support.

So even if the preservation of abandoned creations is a noble act, the number of pitfalls involved make downloading or hosting abandonware far too risky to recommend. Plus, if you’re looking for free software, there’s plenty out there that aren’t under dubious legal status. You have several free Microsoft Office alternatives, for example. Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Fedora are free operating systems you can install on just about any computer. Numerous free and open source PC games exist too, like 0 A.D. and Red Eclipse, leaving you no shortage of legal entertainment without making you open your wallet.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Game on a Low (or Zero) Budget

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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