Abandonware and Copyright

Yesterday we took a strong line against pirated MP3s, warez, and other copyright violation. We received some excellent feedback, particularly with respect to discontinued or abandoned software.

The issue came up recently when Microsoft threatened an Australian nonprofit that distributed older computers to those who otherwise couldn’t afford them. Microsoft wanted Computers For Kids to buy current copies of Windows – but these machines were generally too old and poorly equipped to run Windows Me, and the cost would undermine the agency’s ability to give away computers.

In the end, Microsoft charitably donated a number of licenses to Computers For Kids – far less than they needed, but better than nothing.

In the Mac world, we are allowed to install certain versions of the Mac OS freely. Up through System 7.0.x, all versions of the Mac OS were free to any Mac user. System 7.1 was never made available this way, but Apple has released System 7.5.3 and the update to 7.5.5 as freely usable versions of the Mac OS.

That’s a far more charitable approach than Microsoft and most other software companies take to their abandoned programs and operating systems.


Under copyright law, a creative work belongs to the individual who created it, the team that crafted it, or the entity that hired one or more individuals to create the work. Publication rights can be licensed to others, such as when Claris licensed Emailer from Fog City Software.

For the most part, commercial software is owned by the publisher, because it’s generally created as a work for hire. That copyright lasts far longer than the computers than can run the software, which leads to a problem.

Put simply, there are a lot of computers out there that will never run Mac OS X, Windows XP, Photoshop 6, Office 2000 or 2001, etc. They may run well with Mac OS 7.6.1, Windows 95, Photoshop 3, or Office 4.3.1 – but the owners of these vintage computers rarely have the opportunity to buy a fresh new copy of long-discontinued software.

Enter Teresa Knezek, who wrote Legal Software for Older Macs for Low End Mac and created the Abandonware petition, which has logged over 3,200 signatures since June 2000 – and may have as many as 4,000 once they process their backlog.

Knezek’s goal is to send the petition to various software companies once she has collected a total of 5,000 signatures. If you think Abandonware is a good idea, please read and sign the petition.


You’re probably heard of shareware and freeware, but what is Abandonware?

Teresa defines Abandonware as programs more than two full revision numbers old (e.g., Windows 95, Mac OS 7.x [Mac OS 9.x is still current], Photoshop 4, Word 6) or more than seven years old. Her petition asks software manufacturers to release Abandonware as freeware for the benefit of those using older computer that cannot run the latest operating systems and programs.

The goal of the Abandonware project is to allow free copying and distribution of long-discontinued software, but “without any warranty of usability, offer of support, or included documentation.” Once an abandoned program is liberated to freeware status, anyone would be allowed to copy and distribute it.

Abandonware and Copyright

At present, users of vintage computers have a few options, some less legal than others. They can try to find copies of old programs at local thrift stores, in the surplus area at the local computer dealer, and on eBay. Or they can borrow a copy from a friend, find it on a warez server (see Software Piracy and the Mac), or run duplicate installs from copies they already own.

The first option is time consuming and potentially expensive, while the second is less than legal. What’s a low-end Mac or PC user to do?

As in the case of Napster and MP3s, it’s pretty unlikely the software publishers will come after individual users – unless they’re running their own warez server. That doesn’t make it any more legal than pirating MP3s, but it’s a low risk crime.

Sometimes that may be the only option, because some software companies have gone out of business and their products just aren’t available anywhere on the used or surplus market. It would be nice to know what happens to copyright when the copyright holder no longer exists….

Abandonware wants to make it legal for us to use and copy abandoned software. Teresa realizes that while Photoshop 1 may not be very impressive by today’s standards, there are people for whom it would be perfectly adequate, especially those who cannot afford new computers and new software.

Mickey MouseThe concept of Abandonware is in keeping with the original intent of copyright law, which was that after 28 years the copyrighted material would enter the public domain. That worked just fine until Mickey Mouse came along; now the copyright law is regularly revised so that the Mouse never enters the public domain.

The difference between the Abandonware concept and copyright law is related to the nature of the software and computer industries. Change happens so quickly that we can’t wait for programs to enter the public domain – by then they’ll be more obsolete than quadraphonic 8-tracks are today. Abandonware asks the software industry to consider releasing programs to the public domain on an accelerated schedule, something Low End Mac wholeheartedly supports.

At Low End Mac, we see the two revision numbers and seven years as good general guidelines, not hard and fast rules. If Adobe thinks Photoshop 4 might cut into Photoshop 6 sales, at least they could release earlier versions such as Photoshop 3. The same goes for Microsoft Word and Excel, FreeHand, and any number of other programs.

I believe Adobe, Microsoft, and others would engender a great deal of goodwill by letting thrift stores, individual users, charities, and others recycle those old Macs and PCs with complete operating systems and usable software suites. They would be helping bring those least able to afford it into the computer age. And we, the users of vintage computers, would be much better able to help out the newbies.

Keywords: #abandonware #copyright

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