Copyright Getting In The Way Of Preserving Video Game History

from the and-again-and-again-and-again dept

We keep hearing stories of how copyright is getting in the way of preserving or archiving cultural works. The latest is video games, which face a double whammy of obsolete proprietary hardware and restrictive copyright laws, making it quite difficult to legally preserve those games:

Even if preservationists had the resources to develop the kind of emulators that can stand the test of time, their task would be made all the more difficult by the tendency of game companies to worry more about piracy than preservation. This means that documentation on how their machines work is either non-existent (if the company goes out of business or fails to preserve it) or secret, so makers of emulators must laboriously reverse-engineer existing hardware.

Finally, there’s the copyright issue. Getting permission to preserve a game requires signoff by everyone with a stake in it–its creator, publisher, etc.

Given the current legal situation concerning emulation, it is not possible to preserve video games digitally using emulators and copy media to different physical layers without the manufacturer’s agreement. Establishing responsibility for the preservation of digital data must be seen as a priority. Awareness has to be raised among the manufacturers of console video game systems and console video games to reach agreements about how to preserve their work.

The article also notes that there probably needs to be a legal change, such as exempting such archival activity in the DMCA rulemaking process that just concluded — but so far it doesn’t seem like such changes are likely.

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Comments on “Copyright Getting In The Way Of Preserving Video Game History”

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Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The TETRIS company took down a whole lot of Tetris-like clones from the Android Marketplace.

Incidentally, including a number of BlockOut clones (which is the 3d top-down block stacking game) (par example: Blockx3D), that in my humble opinion should not have fallen victim to that particular DMCA take-down notice as it didn’t infringe on Tetris’ trademarks or copyright.
And Google should allow the counter notice section of the DMCA too, for those game-authors.

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Good point, but if a game isn’t available for a certain market, is it so weird that fans of those games remake them for that market? And should those remakes be made illegal too? (any idea how many Tetris clones there are for Linux?)

The other point was that Tetris != BlockOut. Sure both are block-stacking games, but Tetris is front view 2D, and Blockout uses different shaped blocks and has a top-down 3D view.

And in an ideal world, Google would allow the creators of the games to respond to the DMCA takedown notice.

ECA (profile) says:


This is an interesting topic.

There are emulators that work hard to render games properly. But there are games that FIGHT not to be played, in ANYTHING, except the original machines. Some ODDBALL code hidden inside to protect it, or proprietary formula(hardware/software).
Go ask ATARI..they STILL have copyrights from the Atari game console, they reinvent the games for Many machines. NO ONE can touch them.

Many of the older Software CREATORS have gone into PURCHASE and distribution. They would rather BUY it out, and OWN the channels, then let someone ELSE learn the trade.
Very little in the last 30 years has been released to the pubic domain.

They are at the point, that Copyrighting CODE, is a specialized business ALSO. Its the Copyright.GOV thats having the problems much to remember. A few companies have Banned Software copyrights.

Another point of Strangeness,
Comes with computer history and Gaming history.
If you ever read or see a time line..Figure out where the Amiga goes. 15 years of advanced 8/16 bit computing/graphics out the window.

lfroen (profile) says:

What to preserve exactly?

There’s no point in this “preservation”. That to preserve – artwork? Machinery? Source code?

Artwork can be used under fare-usage provisions, machinery better be authentic to be worth put in museum, and source code is available in every programming text book.

The point of emulator is to “run program for platform X on platform Y”. Most of them are created purely for “because I can” reason or as programming exercise. While former is not really needed, latter is definitely allowed as serve a part of any CS degree.

In short – nothing to see here, move on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What to preserve exactly?

You’d be surprised how many video game brands are preserved purely because of the emulation “piracy” scene. That’s basically how any cult classic is created…because impossible to find games for no-longer-existing platforms are still perfectly available through less than legal means.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What to preserve exactly?

I don’t think you understand what is meant by “source code”. Just because a particular application doesn’t use any unique algorithms, taken line by line, doesn’t mean its source code is “known”. For example, I’m fairly confident the source code for Oracle’s database engine uses algorithms that are well known and common. But I guarantee there is no computer science textbook that contains “the source code for Oracle’s database engine”.

Now perhaps Ifroen meant something else, but it seems like he’s saying there’s no need to try to preserve video games, because the source code for all the video games is in CS textbooks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is not that simple, most games(arcades) of the 80’s and 90’s have protection on the chips that will kill the chip if you try to dump it, that make it difficult to dump the chips for reverse engineering, not impossible but as some can attest, those chips are rare today and if you burn one up it is difficult to find another to test things.

Rabbit80 says:

If you look at the Amiga scene, you can find virtually every game and piece of software ever made for these machines available on the internet – yet nobody seems to mind.

The consensus is that if a game is no longer for sale then it is Ok to pirate it!

The emulation of these machines has reached staggering accuracy as well – thanks to the work of the Amiga community, which is still thriving.

Anonymous Coward says:


Nobody cares about the amiga scene because they’ve figured out they’re not going to make money on it.

They have figured out however that they can repackage a dozen or so old Atari 2600 games to folks my age into a retro looking joystick that plugs into your TV and make a sh!t ton because it brings back memories of our good old days.

20 years from now, it’ll be your kids buying a “retro” PS3 or XBox joystick streaming wirelessly to their TV to bring back the good old days.

Danny says:

Re: Re:

“20 years from now, it’ll be your kids buying a “retro” PS3 or XBox joystick streaming wirelessly to their TV to bring back the good old days.”

I’m thinking it will be more like Ghost in the Shell where it plug directly in the back of the neck. But you’re right. The only reason these games are so hard to emulate is because the copyright owners think they are “being robbed of profits” by it. Emulating would break their ability to re-re-re-re-release old games on whatever the current system is and charge $20 for a retro classic.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

It's all about the culture...

BULLSHIT!!! little mikee, it’s getting old listening to you cry that it’s all about the culture that everything in the world should be free.

get reall, your just too damn lazy to create anything of value, your entire site is based on a business model of making copies of other peoples work, then crying about how it’s all about the culture and fair use and wtf ever to con fools into putting ads on your site so you can then bash the patents and copyrights and trademarks that those fools pay to advertise and pay big money to protect yet if you had your way they would have nothing because everyone could just take their products.

Do these fools advertising on here even realize what your all about?

Rob Shaver (profile) says:

My First Job Out Of College: Embargo

Okay, it’s not exactly on topic but, my first job out of collage in 1976 I created the arcade game Embargo at Cinematronics. It didn’t sell well but, wonder of wonder, someone created a web page about it and there’s even a little video of the game. Someone must have done that with a simulator. Here’s the link (bask in the glory of a bygone era):

Peace, Love, Laughter,


Pat Aufderheide (profile) says:

what to do

Next time there are hearings at the Copyright Office on DMCA exemptions, the videogaming community needs to get before the hearing officers and show clearly why they need to break code to preserve video games. The Librarian of Congress responds well to hard data, as is evident from the exemptions granted this round to those who made a data-driven case.

Dave Storm (user link) says:


After so many years, the original games and their original systems are no longer available to the general public. It’s pointless to try to hang on to original rights management on 15 year old games. If they’re not willing to spend the money to re-release older games on newer systems (or make emulation roms available), then, just declare it abandonware, and let people try to make the games work, DRM-free. Why punish the fans of the games?
Flight Simulation Games

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