How abandonware gets abandoned

From time to time on classic computing and/or videogaming forums, the question of how to track down the current copyright holder to a particular given title comes up. Sometimes someone knows the answer. Frequently they don’t.

This week, when George Lucas announced he’d sold Lucasfilm to Disney, illustrated precisely how this kind of thing happens.

In Ars Technica’s analysis of the deal, Kyle Orland noted that Disney paid $4.05 billion for Lucasfilm, based solely on how it valued the Star Wars franchise. Disney didn’t even factor Indiana Jones into the price. Blockbuster or no blockbuster, if Disney ever makes a dime off Harrison Ford’s other major recurring role, it’s just gravy.

So what does this have to do with software?

Hobbyists of a certain age know that Lucasfilm was once a highly regarded software development house. Starting in the late 1980s, Lucasfilm produced a number of graphical adventure games that had challenging problems to solve and absolutely riotous plots that would leave you chuckling at some moments and spitting your drink onto your monitor at others. Then in the mid 1990s, Lucasfilm released a few space flight/combat “simulation” games based on the Star Wars franchise that became classics in their own right.

As Ars Technica’s Orland observed, a company that ascribes zero value to the Indiana Jones movies is going to care even less about the value of The Secret of Monkey Island for MS-DOS, and less still about Maniac Mansion for 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64. Disney might even consider them a liability, with no clear way to make significant money off them, but still having to deal with the occasional question from fans of the series.

Of course, the rightsholder in this instance isn’t lost. Disney buying Lucasfilm was one of the biggest news stories of the week. Then again, if the copyright holder doesn’t know or care it owns the copyright, the property in question might as well be lost.

And that’s the dilemma. Star Wars is a marketing powerhouse that defined a generation, and Disney was willing to pay more than $4 billion for it. A handful of software titles that a few thousand people still enjoy doesn’t even show up on the radar.

And that’s why I continue to argue that copyrights shouldn’t be automatic and semi-permanent. If it’s not worth a company’s time to renew the copyrights on properties that have outlived their usefulness, they should fall into the public domain so that someone else can make use of them without becoming a criminal.

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